Harvard Educational Review
  1. Mother-Work

    Women, Child Welfare, and the State, 1890–1930

    By Molly Ladd-Taylor.

    Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. 211 pp. $14.95 (paper).

    Molly Ladd-Taylor explores women's contributions to child welfare legislation at the turn of the century in Mother-Work: Women, Child Welfare, and the State, a volume in the Women in American History series. She begins with the late nineteenth century, when maternal and child welfare first became national political concerns. Chronicling the events of welfare legislation, most notably the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act of 1921, the first national welfare legislation, Ladd-Taylor analyzes women's contributions to welfare legislation through three active women's groups of the time: maternalists, progressive maternalists, and feminists. According to Ladd-Taylor, maternalists valued women's unique role in childrearing, which united all mothers, theoretically, across race and class. Maternalists typically performed community service through the extensive women's club network of the time. Progressive maternalists were also known as progressive women reformers, and include those women allied with the U.S. Children's Bureau. Feminists were those women who associated with the National Women's Party.

    Carefully intertwining women's private and public work at the turn of the century, Ladd-Taylor offers a thorough analysis of legislation such as mothers' pensions, the work leading up to the 1935 Social Security Act, and the Sheppard-Towner Act. Employing the rhetoric of motherhood, women of the Progressive Period were able to enter the public sphere and affect welfare legislation. The author notes the irony that by the late 1920s, these welfare programs moved into the hands of the men and women considered "professionals," and were no longer the purview of the maternalists and their cohorts.

    This book is for any scholar interested in feminist and historical research. Mother-Work contributes to the evolving definition of feminism previously developed by historians such as Nancy Cott (1987) in The Grounding of Modern Feminism and James O'Neill (1969) in Everyone Was Brave. Ladd-Taylor succeeds in providing the reader with a look at how "women's unpaid work of reproduction and caregiving" (p. 1) in both the private and public arenas has been central to the development of the U.S. political and economic systems. Ladd-Taylor joins historians Linda Gordon, Theda Skocpol, and Kathryn Kish Sklar in current scholarship on women's roles in the formation of the American welfare state.
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