by Allan Carlson, Ph.D.

Talk for the regional meeting of the Philadelphia Society Milwaukee, WI October 7-8, 2005

Recklessly, perhaps, I rise this day to say good things about the New Deal: not as an economic project, for I will readily grant all the criticisms that might be offered on that count; nor as a recovery project, for I concede that the New Deal may actually have delayed national recovery from the Great Depression.  However, I will examine today the New Deal as a successful project of social reconstruction, one with arguably conservative goals and results.

The industrial collapse of 1929-33, we need remember, was as much a social crisis, as an economic one.  The U.S. Marriage and Birth Rates both fell by 20 percent during the Herbert Hoover years, reaching record lows. 

Of the 15 million workers unemployed in March, 1933, a third of the workforce, the vast majority were from the industrial sector and constituted formerly breadwinning men.  Desperate fathers, abandoned mothers, and frightened and sometimes hungry children filled the landscape. 

The New Dealers also had to overcome the immediate legacy of the Hoover technocrats, progressive sociologists such as William Ogburn of the University of Chicago.  Writing for Hoover’s Research Committee on Social Trends, Ogburn concluded:  that “the factory had [irreversibly] displaced the home;” that American homes had already become “merely ‘parking places’ for parents and children who spend their active hours elsewhere;” that working mothers represented the future; and that ever more children should be moved into collective care.  Wise social policy, Ogburn said, should now be directed toward “the individualization of members of the family.”

In contrast, the conservative, or perhaps better put, the reactionary New Deal social project aimed at rebuilding American families, albeit on a distinct model: breadwinning men married to homemaking women in free-standing, child-rich homes.  Every significant New Deal domestic program assumed and reinforced this family type.  The New Dealers openly opposed working mothers, day care, equity feminism, and gender equality.  They denounced the Equal Rights Amendment as a trick by industrialists to snatch mothers out of their homes and to lower wages.  They favored marriage, motherhood, the home care of children, distinctive gender roles, family homesteads, and the “family wage.”  In this regime, market forces would be channeled to deliver to each male householder an income sufficient to support a wife and their children at home. 

The architects of the domestic New Deal included the so-called Maternalists.  This movement had its roots in the often misunderstood Settlement House campaign launched by Jane Addams during the 1890’s.    Committed to the assimilation of new immigrants into American life, the maternalists saw immigrant women as a critical lever.  They held that all women had “a common identity as nurturers and a common gift for caring,” and that assimilation into the American way could be achieved through this focus on one motherhood.

Representative was Julia Lathrop, actually the daughter of a Republican Congressman from my hometown of Rockford, Illinois.  In 1912, she became the first woman to head a Federal government agency: the newly created Children’s Bureau.  Lathrop’s views on family structure were clear.  As she told a conference on children:

The power to maintain a decent family living standard is the primary essential of child welfare.  This means a living wage and wholesome working life for the men, a good and skillful mother at home to keep the house and comfort all within it.  Society can afford no less and can afford no exceptions.  This is a universal need. 


Her projects at the Children’s Bureau included the “Baby Saving” campaign.  With the goal of reducing infant and maternal mortality, the initiative spawned National Baby Week in 1916, involving over 4,000 communities, and “The Year of the Child” in 1918, which mobilized an amazing 11 million American women.  Lathrop also promoted the training of girls in home economics, child allowances for military families, and maternal breastfeeding.  Under her agency’s influence, the U.S. Congress created Mothers Day in 1914.  Lathrop’s greatest policy victory, though, was the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921.  Passed over the fierce opposition of the American Medical Association, Sheppard-Towner provided federal funds for state programs in maternal and infant hygiene, pre-natal clinics, and visiting nurses for pregnant and new mothers.  This measure was pro-life, pro-baby, and pro-family and it did lead to a 45 percent drop in infant deaths due to gastrointestinal disease.

The maternalists of the New Deal built on this legacy.  Representative here was Frances Perkins, who served as U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945.  The labor historian Philip Foner correctly reports that she “was never the radical that conservatives accused her of being.”  It is true that Perkins strongly favored the regulation of factories; after all, she had directly witnessed the legendary Triangle Shirtwaist fire which saw 146 teenage girls perish in a New York factory, the windows and doors of which were locked from the outside.  However, Perkins also promoted family wages for men, homemaking training for women, and measures to encourage marriage and larger families.  Other New Deal maternalists included:

  • Grace Abbott, a forceful advocate for the mother at home, who was Chief of the Children’s Bureau through 1934 and a member of the Council which drafted the Social Security Act;

  • Katharine Lenroot, a product of the University of Wisconsin and a strong foe of day care, who succeeded Abbott as Chief of  the Children’s Bureau;

  • Mary Anderson, head of the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau, who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment as dangerous and single-handedly prevented the League of Nations from endorsing it;

  • and the remarkable Molly Dewson, head of the Women’s National Committee of the Democratic Party, who believed and acted on the premise that “through the well-being of the family, we create the well-being of The Nation.”

These women conspired to make the “Family Wage” for men the central pillar of the New Deal.  As Katharine Lenroot explained, “the primary essential of child welfare [is] a living wage for the father.”  Mary Anderson declared that the problems of working women would all disappear “if the [male] provider for the family got sufficient wages.  Then married women would not be obliged to go to work.” 

Some feminist historians have argued that these “unconsciously conservative” views of family life were based on unexamined, antiquated assumptions about the domestic role of women.  They imply that the New Deal women would have become conventional feminists if only they had thought about it some more.

This is surely untrue.  The maternalists were fully aware of equity feminism; indeed, they engaged in frequent, open warfare with the arch-feminist National Woman’s Party.  Founded by Alice Paul in 1917, with secret funding from the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Woman’s Party drafted the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in 1923.  On occasions, its members flagrantly disrupted events organized by the maternalist-controlled U.S. Women’s Bureau, running up and down the aisles at one conference “shouting like children having tantrums.”  Importantly, National Woman’s Party opposed much of the New Deal.

How did the Maternalists actually shape New Deal policies?  Examples include:

  1. The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 aimed in part at securing “living wages” for male industrial workers.  NRA relief projects hired only men; “women were ignored.”  A clear majority of NRA Codes fixed minimum wage rates for women up to 30 percent lower than those for men doing the same job.  NRA officials explained these differentials as the result of “long established custom.”

  2. The Subsistence Homestead Program grew out of the agrarian “back to the land” movement, a desire—in one Senator’s words—to restore “that small yeoman class which has been the backbone of every great civilization.”  The New Deal initiated nearly 400 of these new rural villages, in order to recover for thousands of Americans “the hearth where the family gathers and where neighbors are welcomed.”

  3. The Works Progress Administration, the largest of the federal work relief programs, employed over 2.5 million persons by early 1939.  WPA regulations limited enrollment to one breadwinner per household, adding that “a woman with an employable husband is not eligible for referral as the husband is the logical head of the family.”  Even so, about 15 percent of WPA workers were women.  Still, maternalist assumptions shaped the program.  Over half of WPA women worked in “sewing rooms” where they repaired clothing or made new items from scrap.  All WPA women also took mandatory instruction in child care, home health, and food preparation. 

  4. The Social Security Act of 1935 also presumed a very traditional family structure.  As articulated by Abraham Epstein, one of the measure’s architects: “the American standard assumes a normal family of man, wife, and…three children, with the father fully able to provide for them out of his own income.  This standard presupposes no supplementary earnings from either the wife or children.”  As Grace Abbott, explained: “the mother’s services are worth more in the home than they are in the outside labor market.”  The new Social Security system covered only industrial workers, overwhelmingly male.  So-called “female jobs”—including teaching, nursing, and work for charities—were all exempted.  Indeed, women gained Social Security benefits primarily through their ability to conceive and bear children, including Title V measures providing pre-natal and maternal programs and the Aid to Dependent Children provision.

  5. Home owner programs established by the New Deal sparked the drive to the suburbs, so inaugurating a great expansion of the ownership society.  The Home Owners Loan Act of 1933 and The National Housing Act of 1934 invented new forms of long-term mortgages and resulted in 90 percent of new residential construction occurring in the suburbs during the 1930’s, compared to only 60 percent during the prior decade.  According to one historian, “focusing on the suburban residence heightened the importance of women’s domestic contributions [and] the home as the woman’s proper place.” 

  6. Finally, the Social Security Amendments of 1939—the crown jewel of the New Deal—impressed family values deeply onto the emerging American welfare state.  Specifically, the 1939 Amendments directly incorporated the family responsibilities of men into the four-year-old system: first, aged women married at least five years to eligible men would now receive an extra “homemakers” pension equal to 50 percent of their husbands’ benefits; divorced women were excluded; second, widowed mothers with children in the home were removed from ADC, receiving instead a monthly survivors benefit equal to 75 percent of the pension their husbands would have received, so long as the women earned no more than $15 per month and did not remarry; and third, surviving children received a benefit equal to half that which their father would have received.  Overwhelmingly popular, passed with strong bipartisan support, the 1939 Amendments firmly established marriage, the “family wage,” the stay-at-home mother, and the large family as the favored objects of public policy.  Any deviation from these values—divorce, illegitimacy, working mothers, deliberate childlessness—faced financial disincentives.

If you refuse to believe my account of the New Deal, listen to what feminist historians have to say about this era:   

  • Lois Scharf emphasizes the “victimizing effects” of New Deal actions, the way in which “female dependency” was “institutionalized in sweeping legislation;”

  • Mimi Abramowitz deplores the way the New Deal “upheld patriarchal social arrangements;”

  • Gwendolyn Mink grouses that “the 1939 Amendments spelled out the gendered basis of social insurance and spread gender bias throughout the welfare state.”

  • Winifred Wandersee laments the “damage that must have been done to this generation of women”—a catastrophe so great that it “can never be measured.”

  • And Alice Kessler-Harris condemns the New Deal for “locking men and women into rigid attitudes” and for “stifling a generation of feminist thought.” 

What were the real results?  I would argue that the New Deal laid out the policy framework that encouraged the dramatic, unexpected social developments that followed World War II.  For the first time in over 100 years, four things happened simultaneously in America: the marriage rate rose; the average age of first-marriage fell (indeed, to record lows, age 20 for women and 22 for men); the divorce rate declined; and fertility soared in the celebrated American “baby boom.”  Buoyed by VA and FHA mortgage guarantees, young Americans poured into the new suburbs and revolutionized American home-ownership patterns, creating a true ownership society.  Feminism went into eclipse. Indeed, one popular book from 1948, Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia Farnham’s Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, concluded that feminism was “a deep [mental] illness.”  The American homemaker reigned, alongside her family-wage-earning husband.  Children seemed to be everywhere and the construction of new churches and schools proceeded at a record pace.

An editorial in Life magazine from 1960 captured the moment.  Appearing on the eve of the Republican Convention, it noted that President Dwight Eisenhower had given “the latent unity and goodwill of the American people a chance to recover and grow.”  His administration had helped finance the building of eight million new family homes.  Standardized school test scores were rising.  The birth rate was at a record high.  “The American people did all these things—and more.  They did them under the benign and permissive Eisenhower sun.”  The Kennedy or Nixon era, the editorial continued, would be different.  Yet it could “scarcely be more sunny or fruitful than these Eisenhower years, in which so many age-old visions of the good life first became real.”

My argument, again, is that these remarkable social developments marking the 1950’s rested in significant degree on the policy framework—the family-centered welfare state—constructed by the New Deal. What we commonly call “the traditional family”—composed of breadwinning father, homemaking mother, and their 3.7 children (as of 1957)—this was, in part, the product of communitarian social reconstruction inspired by the New Deal Maternalists.  Put another way: if you liked the “Happy Days” of the 1950’s, give some thanks to the New Deal.  The underlying weaknesses of this social regime, the enemies of the traditional family lurking in the alleys and cellars of the 1950’s, the collapse of this family-centered system starting in the 1960’s, and the rise in its place of the “elder-care” welfare state: these are stories to be told another time.