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Stein-Roggenbuck, Susan, fl. 2007. "Review of Wives Without Husbands: Marriage, Desertion, and Welfare in New York, 1900-1935". In Collected Book and Web Reviews (Alexander Street Press, Alexandria, VA, 2005) pp. [N pag] [Bibliographic details]


Wives Without Husbands: Marriage, Desertion, & Welfare in New York, 1900-1935

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Wives Without Husbands: Marriage, Desertion, & Welfare in New York, 1900-1935

By Anna R. Igra. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 175pp. Cloth, ISBN 0-8078-3070-4. $49.95; paper, ISBN 0-8078-5779-3. $19.95).

Reviewed by Susan Stein-Roggenbuck, Michigan State University

Anna Igra's Wives Without Husbands: Marriage, Desertion, & Welfare in New York, 1900-1935 analyzes the evolution of anti-desertion policy in New York. Igra argues that the roots of contemporary attention to marriage as a solution to women's poverty are found in the efforts of Jewish reformers seeking to enact more stringent anti-desertion policies and to strengthen the role of husbands as breadwinners. Her study builds on work by other scholars, including Michael Willrich, and adds greatly to our understanding of the conceptualization of deserted wives and the social policies directed at them. Igra not only describes the goals of reformers and the policies they enacted, but also shows how the implementation of those policies affected deserted women--the targets of antidesertion reform.

Rarely separated from widows prior to 1900, deserted wives were not a new phenomenon in the Progressive Era, but they did command more attention, particularly from Jewish charities and the newly created National Desertion Bureau (1911). Reformers identified deserted women based on their marital status combined with their need for financial help (2). This trend was part of what Igra calls the "dual system of family law that made one husband's desertion a private separation and another's a public offense," a trend that continues today. Deserted wives with means sought redress in the civil courts, while destitute wives turned to the NDB.

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Igra's study focuses on New York City, mining the rich case files of the National Desertion Bureau. From her sample of about 300 of the organization's 17,000 records, she finds significant contrasts between the goals of the antidesertion reformers and those of the women who sought their help. There was often little correlation between the image of the destitute, helpless wife portrayed by the reformers and the women who sought the aid of the NDB. While reformers sought to rebuild marriage bonds, most applicants sought not to reconcile with their husband, but to obtain much-needed financial aid via the bureau's legal mechanisms.

Igra finds a significant gendered division in the goals of Jewish antidesertion reformers. Men sought to regulate the behavior of husbands, while women, largely through the efforts of the National Council on Jewish Women, targeted female immigrants. Desertion was not the primary concern of female reformers: they established education and health programs for immigrant mothers and other programs to protect young women from the lures of prostitution. But Jewish men and women reformers operated with two key goals: helping those in need in their communities, while also combating larger forces of anti-Semitism and discrimination. They sought to both "take care of their own" and to Americanize new immigrants to model their middle-class ways of living. One way male antidesertion reformers did this was to enforce and encourage the male-breadwinner model.

The key mechanism for enforcing male support was the domestic relations court created in New York in 1910, the first such court in the nation. Igra argues that reformers diverted poor deserted women from the welfare system to the legal system and its enforcement of antidesertion laws. New York, like many states, also enacted a mothers' pension law, but it granted aid only to widows until 1924, and was among the most conservative in the country in its scope (35). Even after 1924, Igra argues that few deserted wives were able to obtain a pension. Reformers sought to discourage men from abandoning their wives and children, and believed pensions would provide men with an easy out from their responsibilities. Instead, they directed deserted wives to the legal system of the domestic relations court. Although originally conceived for deserted wives, the court enforced many types of family economic obligations, and became in large measure a "collection agency" for financial responsibilities (87).

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Perhaps the most intriguing part of Igra's study is her analysis of why women sought aid from the NDB. Few sought their help immediately after their husbands left, and most had become accustomed to a lack of financial contribution from their spouses. Igra argues that what sent many women to the NDB was a "second blow to the family economy" (66), often the unemployment of either an older child or the woman herself. A serious illness, either suffered by the wife or one of her family members, may have prevented a wife from working. And virtually none of these women sought reconciliation with their husbands; they were not interested in "fixing" their "broken" family, as antidesertion reformers hoped (70). Instead, they sought financial help during difficult times.

The efforts of the antidesertion reformers to aid these wives and mothers, according to Igra's sample, proved "truly abysmal" (97). Many women never saw any support, and those who gained support had to go to great lengths (and distances) to collect it. Just 3.3 percent of the sampled cases received support payments for at least six months. Yet antidesertion reformers continued to advocate for the system, and the system persisted. The Depression shifted more of the welfare burden to public agencies, which implemented the antidesertion policies of the NDB. Deserted wives could obtain aid, but had to cooperate with officials in securing support from their husbands, which continued to be the primary goal.

Igra's study is just 123 pages (150, with endnotes). This is both a strength and a weakness. The book's length makes it attractive for use in undergraduate courses. The book is readable and accessible, and provides an excellent case study for the development and implementation of social policy.

Igra has mined extraordinarily rich sources, but one wishes that she had presented more information at points. She provides some connection to larger developments in antidesertion and welfare policy, but a more developed picture of how these antidesertion practices, and the operation of the domestic relations court, fit into a larger understanding of welfare, would be helpful. The text could also benefit from additional analysis of the relationship between the public and private agencies, particularly in the 1930s when funding shifted.

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Overall, Igra's study is a strong analysis of the efforts of antidesertion reformers to enforce the support of family members. She illuminates much about the gendered nature of the goals of Jewish reformers and the implementation of those practices. The book is well written and well researched, and adds greatly to our understanding of deserted wives and the regulation of male breadwinning.

Susan Stein-Roggenbuck holds a Ph.D. in American and women's history from Michigan State University. A visiting assistant professor in James Madison College at MSU, she is the author of the forthcoming book, Negotiating Relief: The Development of Social Welfare Programs in Michigan, 1930-1940.


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