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Maternalist Reforms in the United States were experiments in public policy beginning late 19th and early 20th century that took the form of laws providing for state assistance for mothers with young children that did not have the financial support of a male member of the household. This assistance took the form of financial reimbursements, as well as limits on the maximum working hours for women. These reforms arose from the belief that government has an obligation and interest in protecting and improving the living standards of women and children.
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Maternalism is defined by Koven and Michel as a variety of ideologies that "exalted women's capacities to mother and extended to society as a whole the values of care, nurturance and morality", and was intended to improve the quality of life of women and children. To improve the conditions of women and children these policies attempted to reconcile the conflicting roles placed on women during this time period. As single mothers were responsible for both supporting their families and raising children, government assistance would reduce the probability that they could be charged with neglecting their "home duties".
Maternal public policy emerged in the United States following the landmark United States Supreme Court decision Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412 (1908). This case upheld the constitutionality of a law that limited the maximum working hours of women, qualifying the previous Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), in which setting maximum working hours for men was held to be unconstitutional, by ruling that the state was allowed to intervene in matters related to women's working hours due to "the difference between the sexes". The decision in Muller was based on a scientific and sociological study that demonstrated that the government has a legitimate interest in the working conditions of women as they have the unique ability to bear children.
Successes and limitations
While maternalist reforms won protection for working people during a time in which labour movements enjoyed few gains and asserted the right of women to participate in the public realm, they also perpetuated ideas harmful to the advancement of women to a point of equality with men, eliciting criticism from growing numbers of feminists during the period. Some of these ideas include the belief that women ought to be mothers and that ideally men should be financially supporting the family.
Significance to later reforms
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Individual reformers who were advocates of maternalist policies include:
- Ellen Gates Starr
- Florence Kelley, founder of the National Consumers League and factory inspector, called on middle class women to boycott products made by women and children in sweatshops.
- Jane Addams
- Josephine Clara Goldmark
- Julia Lathrop
- Lillian Wald
- Sophonisba Breckinridge
Organizations and institutions who supported maternalist reforms:
- General Federation of Women's Clubs
- Hull House
- National Consumers League
- United States Children's Bureau
- Koven, S., & Michel, S. (1993). Mothers of a New World, Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States (). Routledge.
- Barney, S. L. (1999). Maternalism and the Promotion of Scientific Medicine during the Industrial Transformation of Appalachia, 1880-1930. NWSA Journal, 11(3), 68-92.
- Woloch, N. (1996). Muller v. Oregon: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press.
- Brandeis, L. D. (1907). The Brandeis Brief. Retrieved January 27, 2010, from http://www.law.louisville.edu/library/collections/brandeis/node/235