The Maternalist Welfare State : PROTECTING SOLDIERS AND MOTHERS: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States, <i> By Theda Skocpol (Harvard University Press: $34.95; 714 pp.)</i>

<i> Forbath teaches at the UCLA School of Law and is the author of "Law and the Shaping of the American Labor Movement."</i>

During the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton assailed the great shortcomings of America’s system of social provision. Among advanced industrial nations, he declared, we are virtually alone in our lack of a universal health care system or a nationally mandated program of worker retraining, and this kind of lack jeopardizes our moral and economic well-being.

In “Protecting Soldiers and Mothers,” Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol sets out to explore why American politics and society have proven so intractable in the face of reforms aimed at ending poverty, reducing economic injustice and buffering citizens against the forces of a callous market. Drawing extensively on the work of path-breaking sociologists and historians as well as her own prodigious research, Skocpol has woven a complex and richly detailed explanation, one that offers a number of controversial lessons for present-day reformers.

Skocpol uses the label “paternalist” to describe the systems of social provision created in late 19th- and early 20th-Century Europe; they were forged by male bureaucrats, trade unionists and politicians aiming to better the lot of “male breadwinners” both as industrial workers and family heads. By contrast, she points out, the American system was distinctively “maternalist.” Our first modern welfare programs and agencies assisted mothers and children. They were championed and then staffed largely by women reformers such as Florence Kelley, who relied, in turn, on the “nation-spanning” federations of middle-class women, such as the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the National Congress of Mothers (forerunner of the PTA) to mobilize grass-roots support for these “maternalist” reforms.

Today, if we finally aim to create a just and generous American system of social provision, Skocpol suggests, it will only be if feminists and social reformers can rekindle the ideas and strategies of her maternalist heroines. The “maternalist” cast of many of President Clinton’s emerging policies and policy-makers suggests that Skocpol is on to something, as other critics have remarked. Marion Wright Edleman’s Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), singled out by Skocpol as a modern heir of the maternalist impulse, enjoys great sway, partly because both Hilary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala are long-standing CDF associates. Likewise, such “maternalist” measures as family leaves, infant immunization and Headstart have ranked among the administration’s highest priorities. But before embarking on Skocpol’s path to a better future, we should take a closer look at her view of the past.


Nineteenth-century American workers shared the reform ideals of their European counterparts and won similar reforms from Congress and state legislatures--only to see them repeatedly struck down by the nation’s powerful and independent judiciary. “You can’t pass an eight-hour day without changing the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of every state in the Union,” concluded one of the era’s key labor leaders, who opposed “wasting our time” struggling for reforms that would not be upheld by the courts until “after we are all dead.”

An obdurate judiciary blocked labor’s road toward a paternalist welfare state but left open a narrow path for maternalists. The courts held that the workingman and his employer were equals, free to contract on whatever terms each party thought proper. Reforms like maximum hours laws were voided because they violated this conception of freedom and equality, but the same judges who enforced this specious liberty on behalf of male industrial workers often proved receptive to the view that women workers were not “free-standing individuals” like their brothers and husbands. In 1908, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed to uphold a maximum hours law that covered only women on the ground that “women’s physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence.” Moreover, the Court reasoned, although “like legislation is not necessary” for men, the public interest in “healthy mothers,” and the “maintenance of the home” favored upholding such a law for women.

Moving beyond maximum hours laws for women, the early 20th-Century maternalists went on to promote more ambitious measures. At their urging, most state legislatures passed “mothers’ pensions” laws, enabling localities to provide assistance to needy mothers raising children without the wages of a male breadwinner. They also persuaded Congress and presidents Taft and Teddy Roosevelt to create the federal Children’s Bureau, which was headed and staffed by female reformer-professionals aiming to canvass the needs of the nation’s infants and mothers. Finally, by 1921, the Children’s Bureau had successfully spearheaded a campaign for the first program of welfare-oriented-grants-in-aid to the states, establishing subsidized clinics to supply pre- and post-natal advice to mothers. The maternalists had claimed the “civic space” which, in Europe was occupied by male civil servants, labor leaders and socialist parties.

The maternalist campaigns followed a tradition of women’s reform crusades reaching back to the early 1800s when the idea first emerged that home and domestic tasks were women’s “separate sphere.” The harsh, self-seeking competition of economic and political life helped mold an idealized view of home as haven in a heartless world, and of women as the guardians of morality and human kindness. This cult of “true women-hood” insisted that woman’s place was in the home, but, at the same time, it encouraged countless 19th-Century American women to become involved in civic affairs. As society’s unique custodians of morality, women managed to turn the “separate spheres” ideology against itself. Dubbing themselves “public mothers” and their reform activities “municipal housekeeping,” Skocpol’s maternalists proclaimed, “Women’s place is Home. But Home is the community.”


As a model for the present, the maternalists’ rhetoric of “true womanhood” rubs abrasively against the grain of today’s “equal rights” feminism. Our newest Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has stood for this view of women’s legal equality with men; her landmark cases as a women’s rights attorney assailed just the kind of legally enshrined “differences"--women’s supposedly special functions and weaknesses--on which Skocpol’s maternalist advocates relied. As Skocpol acknowledges, no woman today who combines family with full participation in work and politics would forsake her equal rights to return to the heyday of maternalism, however vital it may have been.

In Skocpol’s unflinching terms, maternalists assumed a “right to regulate” the lives of lower-class, new immigrant women and did not hesitate to divide them into categories of “deserving” and “undeserving.” Moreover, even “deserving” mothers received precious little; for the programs were chronically underfunded. Once the mothers’ pensions laws were safely on the books, influential maternalists lost interest in them; so the only constituency left to press for decent benefit levels were poor women themselves. Small wonder, then, that the mothers’ pensions became the forerunners of demeaning welfare for underclass women rather than “honorable salaries for mothers.”

Likewise, Skocpol skips too lightly over the role of race in her protagonists’ outlook. Most of them shared Teddy Roosevelt’s anxiety that the new immigrants in the cities of the North threatened the nation’s “racial stock"; their welfare programs came with a mandatory dose of “Anglo-Saxon values.” This was worlds better, to be sure, than the experience of African-Americans, who lived overwhelmingly in the South, where local officials supported white supremacy and black serfdom by keeping them off the welfare rolls almost entirely. Still, the maternalists contributed toward the identification of “welfare” with the managing of racial difference, which has run like a jagged fault line through all the subsequent history of social provision in the U.S. and goes a long way toward explaining the demeaning image and reality of “welfare” today.

During the 1930s, less than a decade after Skocpol’s narrative closes, F.D.R. managed to mobilize Americans along class lines to support his New Deal. Today, as another member of the Clinton cabinet, Labor Secretary Robert Reich has pointed out, the upper-class in America has virtually “seceded” from the public social services on which most Americans rely. That bodes ill for class harmony between the rich and the rest of us and suggests that, contrary to Skocpol’s conclusions, class-based efforts to expand the nation’s commitment to social programs may not have outlived their historical usefulness just yet. In any case, the meager results of the maternalists’ campaigns must leave today’s reformers leary of putting too much hope in alliances of poor and affluent women across the divide of class.

Regarding these thorny questions, I can think of no better critic of Skocpol than Skocpol herself, who long has argued for reshaping America’s social programs to make them as universal and inclusive as possible. The reason is brilliantly simple; the smaller and less powerful a program’s constituency, the stingier and meaner it is likely to be. As far as possible, Skocpol’s earlier writings insist, social provision should be built around policies that recognize that every American is entitled to decent work, decent health care and decent provision against the hazards of illness, unemployment and old age. This is the language of citizenship, and some of the more enlightened maternalists, like Florence Kelley, preferred it. Kelley felt she had no choice but to turn to the more constricted vocabulary of maternalism. Perhaps, in our day, Skocpol will decide otherwise.