Reading between the Lines: How Progressive-Era Rhetoric Shaped the Lives of Children

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 4:30 PM
Governor's Square 14 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Deborah A. Skok, Hendrix College
Critical reading is an indispensable methodology for historians who study poor or “dependent” children, because the rhetoric used by adults has the power to shape children’s lives. This paper will study Mothers’ Pensions in New York to demonstrate that adult rhetoric about impoverished children was often marshaled in the cause of competing political interests.

New York State’s first Mothers’ Pension Law passed in 1915, just as similar laws were spreading like wildfire in other states. “Maternalist” rhetoric that emphasizes the sacred bond between mothers and children is now an accepted part of the pension narrative, but the political conflict behind it is less well known. New York’s pension efforts involved a bruising struggle over the public funding of denominational orphanages, especially those run by Roman Catholic nuns. Critics accused the nuns of feeding the children out of the same trough as pigs, while the nuns’ supporters condemned the pensions as mere handouts. The fight pitted upstate Republicans and progressive reformers against the Archdiocese of New York and Tammany Hall. Out of the conflict emerged a group that could reconcile these competing interests. Urban Liberals like Harry Hopkins blended close ties to New York’s Democratic Party with impeccable progressive credentials in social work. Hopkins, later one of the architects of the New Deal, was in charge of administering Mothers’ Pensions in New York City.

Maternalist rhetoric tended to portray the poor as helpless dependents, but Hopkins saw them instead as workers and fought to increase their pay. Hopkins believed that working offered mothers and children agency that pensions alone could not, while his efforts also foreshadowed the discomfort with maternalist programs that would emerge in the New Deal. Meanwhile, the voices of the most important stakeholders in the conflict, the mothers and children, were not heard above the fray.

<< Previous Presentation | Next Presentation