Insecurity: Disabled Bodies, Gender, and the New Deal State

Monday, January 6, 2020: 11:40 AM
Bryant Room (New York Hilton)
Audra Jennings, Western Kentucky University
Thinking about citizens’ bodies, abled or disabled, but always gendered, shaped New Dealers’ efforts to relieve the suffering wrought by the Great Depression and effect long-term economic security. Women’s historians have long argued that gender framed the New Deal state, but understandings of ability, inability, and disability also guided the tremendous state growth sparked by the Great Depression. In crafting the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to create security against the “hazards and vicissitudes of life,” and he charged the the Committee on Economic Security with developing a plan to accomplish this goal. The committee’s work resulted in the Social Security Act of 1935 and laid the foundation for much of the future growth of the welfare state. As committee members identified and articulated the central hazards Americans faced, disability emerged as a central theme. Committee members placed “permanent injury” from workplace and other accidents, prolonged and “serious illness,” chronic disabilities that cut short workers’ span of productive years, and disability in childhood on the list of the “many misfortunes which often result in destitution.” Further, the committee understood old age as a hazard only when an individual was “beyond the productive period” and without sufficient “income to provide for the remaining years of life.” Each of these categories reflected metaphors for disability, representing moments when bodies failed to perform and contribute to economic productivity. Committee members, however, understood disability as problematic when filtered through the prism of gender. Old age dependency, for example, taxed, presumably male, breadwinners and prevented women from focusing on developing “strong” and independent future citizens. The New Deal’s plan for social security then was one that aimed to both take some steps to provide security against disability and shore up the gendered order—ideas that must be examined together to be understood.
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