Carlson – The Social Conservative Case for the New Deal
Social Conservative Case for the New Deal
Meeting of The Philadelphia Society
October 8, 2005
The Pfister Hotel
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.
*Allan Carlson is President of The
Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society and author, most recently, of Fractured
Generations (Transaction 2005).
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 New Dealers also had to overcome the immediate legacy of the Hoover
technocrats, progressive sociologists such as William Ogburn of the University
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,
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.
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:
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.
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:
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
a product of the University of Wisconsin and a strong foe of day care, who
succeeded Abbott as Chief of the
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
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.”
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?
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
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.”
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
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, andÖthree
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.