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

September 26, 1993|William E. Forbath | Forbath teaches at the UCLA School of Law and is the author of "Law and the Shaping of the American Labor Movement."

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.

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