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Book Review / Nonfiction : Plight of Single Mothers Hasn't Changed Much Through History : PITIED BUT NOT ENTITLED: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare by Linda Gordon ; The Free Press; $22.95, 419 pages

November 21, 1994|BARBARA COTTMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Last year, a number of social commentators, concerned about welfare and soaring illegitimate birth rates among the poor, began a rash of attacks on the unwed, uneducated, unemployed mother.

Cancel her stipends, they said. Take her children and offer them for adoption if she can't provide a suitable home once her government checks are cut off. "The child deserves society's support," explained Charles Murray in a Wall Street Journal article. "The parent does not."

In Linda Gordon's "Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare," we learn that these are not new arguments. Similar ones were made--and acted on--as early as the beginning of this century. We also learn that blaming the mother tends to worsen the very problems we wish to solve.

Gordon, a professor of American history at the University of Wisconsin, recounts the groundbreaking political and professional histories that propelled the "mothers' aid" movement, an organized campaign that sought public assistance for destitute single mothers. At the same time, she exposes the gender and racial biases embedded in those histories, cultural biases that have crippled our efforts to help the most needy of American families--female-headed households.

Until the New Deal Era, the mothers' aid movement was essentially a white women's affair led by well-intentioned, well-to-do feminists, Gordon writes. Once Franklin Roosevelt funded a national public assistance program, though, white male politicos wrested control of the movement away from their white female counterparts.

Before the Social Security Act of 1935--the law that federalized social provisions, including public aid to single mothers and children, now known as AFDC--the feminists had gained considerable influence, having virtually shaped what became the welfare state. They had also created the social-work profession.

Yet the public assistance programs they developed for their poorer sisters were paltry, far less generous than those in most other Western nations. America's female elite, Gordon tells us, shortchanged America's less privileged women.

Women in the mothers' aid movement were victims of a culture supported by a number of obdurate beliefs about race, class and the role of women in society. Largely because these feminists could not transcend these beliefs and were thus willing to accept a subordinate view of women, we are now living with their legacy, a two-tier system of public assistance.

On the one hand, Gordon explains, men receive payments from retirement and unemployment insurance, which is based on their "right" to receive it; because they're seen as entitled, their government subsidy is not thought of as welfare.

Women's payments, however, have been based solely on need: Because single mothers aren't seen as "entitled" to anything, they are stigmatized by their association with welfare. Most women of the mothers' aid movement saw nothing wrong with this arrangement.

The reason, Gordon explains, is that most of these women acquired their feminism from the "maternalist" tradition, which championed a vision of women as fundamentally domestic creatures. A mother should stay home, raise the kids, care for her husband and rely entirely on the man to assume financial responsibility.

Ironically, none of the above applied to women of the mothers' aid movement. Typically they were unmarried, did not have or want children, and were professionally ambitious. They even created an "old girls" network to help each other secure career opportunities.

Nevertheless, many maternalists wholeheartedly supported the "family" wage concept--earnings paid to men based upon their need to support a family, as opposed to payment based on their ability and level of effort. But women were to serve as uncompensated domestic laborers.

As a consequence, the vast majority of maternalists believed in very stingy stipends for poor mothers. They feared that a realistic budget allowance would let too many men off the hook, leading to the abandonment of even more women.

These feminists also supported small stipends because they didn't think poor women could handle a "big" budget. So they penalized--by reducing or stopping payments--those who didn't strictly comply with what the maternalists deemed appropriate expenditures or "suitable" (read moral) behavior.

They insisted that these mothers work to make up the difference between what they required to survive and their stipend. At the same time, they faulted some mothers for taking jobs that led them to spend too much time away from their kids. To confuse matters even more, many of these early 20th-Century feminists did not believe in child-care services, or "day nurseries." The rationale was that if mothers went out into the work force, they would certainly be exploited.

The mother's aid movement was also guilty of racism. In general, blacks were ignored--both poor single mothers who needed assistance and highly educated black women who wanted to join forces with the white feminists.

Gordon presents a balanced view of the mother's aid movement with regard to women's roles, but there is scant mention of black men in this book, an unworthy omission, for she suggests that their contribution was significant once the Urban League was formed.

Still, Gordon has written a brave book that traces an important history that is bound to change the reader's view of what can and should be done.

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