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Creating a Document Project for the Women and Social Movements Website:
One Author's Perspective

S. J. Kleinberg, Brunel Business School, Brunel University, Uxbridge, United Kingdom

This piece was first presented to the annual meeting of the British American Nineteenth Century Historians (BrANCH) held in October 2005 at Maddlingley Hall in Cambridge. This revised version appears online for the first time in June 2006.

 

   Undertaking a document project for the Women and Social Movements website enables historians to harness the power and scope of the World Wide Web to make primary sources available to a much wider group of readers than could ever hope to visit the archives where those sources are located. It also makes the process of historical scholarship more transparent because one is explaining to WASM's readership how those documents help answer historical questions.1 The document project presents an opportunity to think about how historical data from diverse sources enriches our understanding of the past. It gives historians the opportunity to link the actual data (rather than references to them) to the narrative that they are writing. It impels us all to consider the significance of different types of historical documents, which, of course, were formulated for purposes other than our own. Such documents capture information about various groups and the causes in which their originators had an interest.

   The website editors and their peer reviewers emphasize the need to consider how their historical sources relate to key issues in the analysis of social movements in particular times and places. In the case of my document project, "How Did the Debate about Widows' Pensions Shape Relief Programs for Single Mothers, 1900-1940?" [underline and make a hard link to the intro to this document project] the focus is on cities. The Women and Social Movements web site also foregrounds ways in which diverse users can be helped to interrogate and analyze documents. Its ethos requires that historians go beyond the individual problem in which they have an interest to explain how a range of sources contribute to our understanding of an issue.

   Of particular interest to me as I authored my document project were the underlying historiographical issues it posed and the process of using historical documents of many different sorts to illuminate the key questions of the past. The projects lead scholars to consider the nature of historical evidence. Instead of solely writing history, the historian engaged in creating a document project also needs to be explicit about the uses to which a variety of historical source materials can be put to construct an argument about and a narrative of the past. Thus undertaking a document project forces the historian to be conscious of the links between epistemology and historiography.

   In this context, historiography and epistemology blend together. Epistemology, the theory of knowledge, encourages deliberation about the study of the method and grounds of knowledge, especially its limits and validity. Epistemology is central to the Women and Social Movements project because the historian is seeking to explain how different sources contribute to what we know about a topic. Many monographs and articles begin with the historiography of their subject, an examination of key sources, and an analysis of intellectual pedigree. Doing a document project also requires us to consider how we know things, the way in which discrete pieces of information play a role in our knowing them, and how we move from the raw data to an informed analysis. The document project encourages historians to focus on what questions they ask of their data and how each particular item is a factor in their understanding of and answers to questions about the past.

   Historians spend much of their time researching, writing, and seeing books and articles through the publication process, but they are not always explicit about how they formulate topics to investigate and how particular bits of evidence support their hypotheses. In this article I want to demonstrate how the process of creating a document project enhances the historian's understanding of historical methods at the same time that it makes the underlying sources accessible to a wide group of people from diverse backgrounds and with varied areas of interest.

   I remain a retrograde quantifier who believes that social history needs to be built, at least in some measure, upon a skeleton of numerical data. In conjunction with letters, diaries, charity society reports, and the voices of the poor echoed, however faintly, through the records of philanthropic societies, such data can help explain why these social movements occur at any given historical moment. 2 This is not a startling new revelation. Social and economic historians have been playing with numbers for decades. One need only read through the pages of the Journal of Social History, the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, or Social Science History, to name but three of the leading scholarly journals publishing in this area, to realize the extent to which historians routinely rely upon quantitative data as structures upon which they build their arguments.

   My approach derives at least in part from the Newberry Library's Family History Summer Workshops in Quantitative Methods, Statistics, and Demography during the 1970s. These month-long workshops led by Richard Jensen and Daniel Scott Smith introduced a generation of historians to rigorous interdisciplinary quantitative methods. We sweltered through the hot Chicago summer learning to analyze censuses, voting behavior, and anything else we could count on our fingers, toes, and computers. If I list but a few of the participants and some of the books they subsequently published, the significance of these workshops will become clear: Kathryn Kish Sklar (co-editor of WASM with Tom Dublin, author of Florence Kelley and the Nation's Work: The Rise of Women's Political Culture, 1830–1900); Eileen Boris (Home to Work: Motherhood and the Politics of Industrial Homework in the United States); Dean May, (Three Frontiers: Family Land and Society in the American West, 1850–1900); Judith Wellman, (Grassroots Reform in the Burned-Over District of Upstate New York); Katherine Lynch (Individuals, Families, and Communities in Europe, 1200–1800); Janice Reiff, (Structuring the Past: The Use of Computers in History); Alan Kulikoff (Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680–1800); and S. J. Kleinberg (The Shadow of the Mills: Working-Class Families in Pittsburgh, 1870–1900).3 This list shows the breadth of influence of the new social history, especially in the study of gender and family. The books mentioned here demonstrate how Newberry alumni used their training to inform the history they subsequently wrote. By combining these new methodological tools (a new way of accessing and ordering knowledge) with more traditional qualitative historical sources these historians constructed analyses of social change that depended upon systematic investigations of economic and demographic shifts. In the process, they highlighted the connections between how their knowledge about the past was linked to the different methodologies they employed.

   Since my documentary project was an outgrowth of the research for my recently published monograph, Widows and Orphans: The Family Economy and Social Welfare Policy, 1880–1939, I will use it to reflect upon the nature of knowledge and how the document project illuminates the historical and epistemological processes. I began my study with a tentative quantitative hypothesis that explicitly linked Progressive and New Deal social welfare policies to changes in the structure of the workforce and the family.4 I questioned why social and political reformers in the United States inaugurated a new form of support for widows and orphans at the beginning of the twentieth century, given that the proportion of widows remained relatively constant in the United States from the early national period to the end of the Great Depression. My research thus began with the assumption that something must have changed in the economic or social climate to prompt the widows' pension movement. This assumption treats political change as a variable dependent upon developments in the economy and the particular social structures that derive from it. My approach thus differs from that of sociologists and political scientists, who emphasize the importance of the political origins of social policy and usually concentrate on national policy.5 My interpretation of the development of the welfare state explores the significance of local values and local economic structures. Hence, I used sources and methodological tools that would enable me to investigate the structure of local economies and the welfare systems that resulted from them. In other words, what I wished to know dictated the evidence I examined in order to test the hypothesis and how I would examine it. Of particular relevance here is the relationship between my preliminary assumptions and the documents I selected for inclusion in my project.

   In Widows and Orphans First, I used both published tables from the U.S. census and my own coding of family and employment structures in three cities (Pittsburgh, Fall River, and Baltimore) that had very different economic, racial, and ethnic compositions. Census tables provide information on the national and city level. They usually correlate two or three variables, such as employment by race, sex, age, and (for women only) marital status. Manually coded manuscript census data permitted me to interrogate the interrelationship between economic, social, and political (social welfare) data in a complex fashion. I compared household composition, the occupations of all family members, and the presence of servants and boarders between the three cities, and then investigated the social welfare policies that derived from these economic and demographic structures.6 The widows in the three cities took different approaches to economic activity depending upon the availability of jobs for children and for themselves. Pittsburgh, Fall River, and Baltimore, as it turned out, also had distinctive approaches to the provision of social services for widows and orphans. Specifically, economically conditioned local values about the employment of women and children and the availability of education or employment for these groups shaped the attitudes about which widows and orphans should receive public or philanthropic aid and which would not.

   Because the census data are presented in rather complex tables, the readers of my proposed document project urged me to make them more accessible than they otherwise would be, especially to students in lower-division college courses. They asked me to guide readers through some of the documents' main points. This resulted in somewhat longer introductory notes than is typically the case in other document projects. However, it also enabled me to indicate how each document helped create the political climate that engendered the mothers' pensions movement. I then divided the documents collected into three categories. Part I: Widows' and Orphans' Social and Economic Conditions, Part II: Proposed Solutions for Widows' Poverty, and Part III: The Implementation of Widows' Pensions. This approach followed my original title for the project, "Widows' Pensions and Social Welfare during the Progressive Era." It still made historiographical and epistemological sense after the title was changed into a question – one of the editorial requirements of the site. My question "How Did the Debate about Widows' Pensions Shape Relief Programs for Single Mothers, 1900–1940?" clarified my historiographic and epistemological focus.

   To highlight the underlying socio-economic issues in the construction of widows' pensions, I began my project for WASM with two census tables. The first table, from 1900, detailed the marital state of both sexes differentiated by race, nativity, and region of the United States.7 The second table contrasted employed women's marital status between 1890 and 1910.8 It highlighted an important trend that influenced social welfare policy in these years: the proportion of employed women rose among all marital statuses. The relative increases were highest for married women (whose employment outside the home more than doubled between 1890 and 1910) and single women (one-quarter more had jobs in 1910). Widows, paradoxically, had a lower but still measurable gain in levels of economic activity; about 14 percent more held jobs in 1910 than had in 1890. These statistics suggest that widows' pensions were not a response to a greater prevalence of widows in the labor market but were a reaction against the employment of women with domestic responsibilities, whether married or widowed. They were also a reaction against the rapid increase in the number of young children in the labor force at the end of the nineteenth century, and the appalling employment conditions many of them endured.9 I did not include tabular data on children's employment in the document project, largely because of the need to keep the documents tightly focused, although it forms a central component of my monograph on the development of social welfare policies.

   The two census tables indicated the geographical, racial, and ethnic variation in levels of widowhood and, as I explained in the introduction to the table, showed that African Americans had higher rates of widowhood than other population groups. I supplemented these nationwide tables with some of the text and tables from W. E. B. DuBois's Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, one of the first systematic community studies undertaken in the United States. 10 While African American families had higher rates of widowhood and impoverishment they received little attention from the formulators of social policy. They were much less likely than white women to obtain widows' pensions. In fact, the presence of widows' pensions correlated inversely with the proportion of African Americans in a particular locality. Even in states and cities which had pensions poor African American widows with young children were unlikely to obtain a pension. In other words, pensions were not a response to need per se but rather to a set of perceptions about which single mothers should be helped to devote more time to childrearing.

   DuBois's pioneering study of African Americans in the urban North presents readers with an analysis of opportunities and obstacles encountered by native and migrant blacks in that city. It demonstrates that while the number of African Americans in cities grew rapidly during the Progressive Era, they remained largely outside the ambit of white social reformers. This occurred despite the large proportion of widowed or permanently separated black women who supported themselves and their families. DuBois observed that the hard conditions endured by black men contributed to their premature deaths and the prevalence of widows in the city. In Philadelphia as a whole, 19 percent of African American women were widowed in 1890, compared with 4 percent of black and white men and 14 percent of white women. Such high death rates caused and exacerbated poverty among black families. Yet, the racial composition of the recipients of these pensions and their regional biases are only beginning to receive appropriate scholarly attention in the burgeoning literature on widows' pensions.11 Joanne Goodwin's fine study of pensions in Chicago is particularly attuned to issues of race and place, as is Sherri Broder's study of the family in late-nineteenth-century Philadelphia, to name but two of the recent studies that illuminate issues of race, gender, and nativity.12

   Subsequent documents included in this project focus on the expansion of social welfare agencies in the Progressive Era and their use of systematic surveys to analyze and ameliorate the immiseration of a significant portion of the urban working class. Lillian Brandt's article in Charities and The Commons illustrated that families who applied for charitable assistance tended to remain on the margins of the economy for long periods of time. She also found that widows experienced considerable difficulty in earning a sufficient wage to support a family.13 Crystal Eastman's Work Accidents and the Law, published as part of the Pittsburgh Survey conducted in the first decade of the twentieth century, was both a dispassionate analysis of the poverty endured by families deprived of their main breadwinner and a plea for better workmen's compensation and support for widows in an economic district that had few employment opportunities for women.14 A few years later, social workers Mary Richmond and Fred Hall published the results of a survey conducted by the Charity Organization Department of the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City.15 Charity Organization Societies across the northern United States largely opposed widows' pensions as indiscriminate giving. They believed in self-help rather than state help and advocated part-time employment for mothers that would enable them to combine employment and family responsibilities.16

   In order to indicate the varying solutions to widows' poverty and the premature employment of young children, I included two documents uncovered in my research. The annual report of the Managers of the Electric Sewing Machine Society provided the kind of support called for by Richmond and Hall, namely part-time work in the society's workrooms.17 The second of these documents came from a manual entitled How to Help: A Manual of Practical Charity, designed for the use of non-professional workers among the poor.18 Melissa Doak, one of the editors of the Women and Social Movements project, drew her metaphorical red pencil through my elucidation of Mary Katharine Coynngton's subsequent career and publications for the Bureau of Labor, reminding me to remain focused on the topic and not wander off into interesting but not directly relevant bits of information.

   My introductory notes got even longer as I turned to national legislation and calls for action, including Theodore Roosevelt's, "Address to the White House Conference on Dependent Children" in 1909. This document is interesting for several reasons. It illuminates the construction of social welfare policy, the role of women in the Progressive Era, and the way in which many reformers joined women's welfare to that of their children. Indicative of the gendered pattern of social welfare activism in the Progressive Era, the formal organizing committee for the conference consisted of men involved in children's and general charities, although well-known female reformers including Jane Addams and Lillian Wald participated in the work of the conference itself.19

   The President's address to the conference began with the premise that children's welfare mattered to the nation as a whole and that children should be cared for at home if at all possible, even if this meant supporting widowed mothers to look after their children. The conference addressed a number of key issues, including the establishment of a federal department dedicated to children's interests. It placed child welfare on the federal agenda, gave impetus to the widows' pension movement, and discussed the need for an agency within the federal government that would look after children's interests.

   The next set of documents in the project demonstrated how different levels of government responded to the campaigns for widows' pensions and the cataclysmic poverty during the Great Depression. State legislatures pressed ahead with pensions for widowed mothers despite the negative response from social work professionals. The New York State Commission on Relief for Widowed Mothers published its findings in 1914. New York acted upon its recommendations, creating pensions for widowed mothers but not for the children of divorced or deserted mothers because to do so would (in their view) put a "premium upon these crimes against society."20 This is an important point: Progressive reformers distinguished between widows and other lone mothers. Aid to divorced or deserted mothers of young children was not generally available until much later in the century.

   One of the points I make both in the document project and in my book on widows' pensions is the extent to which recipients of widows' pensions endured repeated investigations into their morals, spending patterns, and maternal oversight. In order to overcome the supposed stigma of indiscriminate giving, officials would investigate each mother to determine whether she was fit to bring up her own children. By doing this, social workers and pension administrators subjected widowed mothers to close scrutiny even while acknowledging that widows had a claim upon the state because they were not the authors of their own misfortune. By 1931, 82 percent of those receiving city or county aid were widows; 99 percent of assistance went to mothers rather than other caretakers or family groups. African Americans accounted for a mere 3 percent of the recipients, and southern states allocated the lowest per capita expenditure on mothers' assistance in the nation.21

   The Social Security Act of 1935, amended in 1939, provided a federal subsidy to states to support mothers bringing up children on their own, but it did so at a lower level than other aid programs. It allowed states to control the terms under which they gave aid, continuing the biases evident in earlier mothers' pension programs. It also made no provision to support mothers or other relatives who looked after children, which distinguished it from federal benefits paid to the families of deceased veterans. The retirement provisions of the 1939 amendments reinforced the male breadwinner model of social provision. Married women received no additional benefit from their own labor force participation, nor could husbands submit claims against their wives' employment record.22 Moreover, both the 1935 and 1939 laws excluded farm workers and domestic servants from retirement and survivors' benefits, which meant that most African Americans and other people of color received little aid from these programs. By retaining local control over the distribution of Aid to Dependent Children, but not over workmen's compensation or old age pensions, the federal government retained localism as the basis for women's and children's welfare. This, in turn, enabled states to incorporate their own prejudices in the distribution of Aid to Dependent Children. In effect, the federal government continued a racialized and gendered basis of citizenship in which women received aid based upon their race and marital status while men obtained pensions or assistance based upon their race and employment.23

   What I hoped to do in the creation of this set of documents was illuminate the economic, social, and political dynamics of aid to mothers with young children. The editors discouraged me from including documents that focused on widows in general. The original reader for the project felt that that lens was too diffuse and that it blurred the different approaches to the poverty of older and younger widows. She/he asked what historical question was being addressed. It was not good enough to present the documents, even with introductions that showed how they could be used. In other words, the document project needed to go beyond the epistemological, beyond knowing the meaning of the items selected. Instead, the epistemological needed to be blended with the historiographical, showing how the documents enabled readers to address a particular historical question.

   The process of creating a set of documents with a general introduction to the topic and individual headnotes for each document requires a tighter focus than I first used. Ultimately, the project is much stronger and more usable by a diverse community because it concentrates on a particular question. The WASM project is an exciting venture into making the supporting documents used by historians more widely available. It makes a broad range of resources available electronically. It is of great use to teachers, academics, and students from around the world. I would urge everyone to get their libraries to acquire subscriptions to it. I certainly enjoyed creating a document project for it and have persuaded my library to subscribe to it. This subscription overcomes some of the disadvantages experienced by overseas students and scholars of American history who do not have access to the same range of primary sources as those living in the United States. The Women and Social Movements web site opens up new doors and new avenues of research for historians at all levels. Blending the epistemological with the historiographical hones scholarship and makes the process of writing history more transparent. It thus helps us understand how we know what we know and how we apply our knowledge of primary sources to the finished project of historical narratives.


Endnotes

   1. I wish to thank Kitty Sklar and Tom Dublin for suggesting the exciting prospect of doing a document project for WASM and for organizing a session at the annual conference of the British Historians of America in the Nineteenth Century, at which a version of this paper was first presented.

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   2. Among the historians who have used charity/welfare records to capture working class voices, see Linda Gordon, Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare (New York: Free Press, 1994); Rickie Solinger, Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v. Wade (London: Routledge, 2000); and Lisa Levenstein, "From Innocent Children to Unwanted Migrants and Unwed Moms: Two Chapters in the Public Discourse on Welfare in the United States, 1960–1961," Journal of Women’s History 11, 4 (Winter, 2000): 10–33.

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   3. Kathryn Kish Sklar, Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work: The Rise of Women's Political Culture, 1830–1900 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995); Eileen Boris, Home to Work: Motherhood and the Politics of Industrial Homework in the United States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Dean May, Three Frontiers: Family Land and Society in the American West, 1850–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), Judith Wellman, Grassroots Reform in the Burned-Over District of Upstate New York (New York: Garland Pub., 2000); Katherine Lynch, Individuals, Families, and Communities in Europe, 1200–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Janice Reiff, Structuring the Past: The Use of Computers in History (Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 1991); Alan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680–1800 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), and S. J. Kleinberg (The Shadow of the Mills: Working-Class Families in Pittsburgh, 1870–1907, (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989).

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   4. S. J. Kleinberg, Widows and Orphans First: The Family Economy and Social Welfare Policy, 1880–1939 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006).

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   5. Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992); Robyn Muncy, Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890–1935 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

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   6. The manual coding of the manuscript census was necessary because I began the project before machine-readable census data became widely available. For descriptions of such data, see the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, available online at www.ipums.umn.edu/usa/.

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   7. U. S. Census Office, Census Reports, Volume II, Twelfth Census of the United States, Taken in the Year 1900, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1902), lxxxvi. The actual titles of the census change with each volume. I provide here what is listed on the volumes employed.

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   8. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, "Marital Status of Women in the Civilian Labor Force, 1890 to 1910," in Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1975), 133.

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   9. Walter Trattner, Crusade for the Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970).

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   10. W. E. B. Du Bois, Philadelphia Negro (1899; reprint, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996). See also Isabel Eaton's special report on domestic service, "Conjugal Condition of Negro Domestics," on page66-72, 273-77, 490-92.

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   11. Andrew Billingsley and Jeanne M. Giovannoni document the disregard for the welfare of African American children in Children of the Storm: Black Children and American Child Welfare (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), while Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward explore the wider ramifications of racial bias in welfare provision in Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (New York: Vintage, 1971).

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   12. Joanne L. Goodwin, Gender and the Politics of Welfare Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Sherri Broder, Tramps, Unfit Mothers, and Neglected Children: Negotiating the Family in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002). See also Robert C. Lieberman, Shifting the Color Line: Race and the American Welfare State (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998).

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   13. Lilian Brandt, "On the Verge of Dependence," Charities and the Commons XV, no. 14 (6 January 1906), 462-65.

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   14. Crystal Eastman, Work Accidents and the Law (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1910), Chap. IX, "The Effect of Industrial Fatalities upon the Home," 132-43.

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   15. Mary E. Richmond and Fred S. Hall, A Study of Nine Hundred and Eighty-five Widows Known to Certain Charity Organization Societies in 1910 (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1913), 1-83.

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   16. Frederic Almy, "Public Pensions to Widows: Experiences and Observations Which Lead Me to Oppose Such a Law," and Mary E. Richmond, "Opposition to Mothers' Pensions" in Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, 1912.

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   17. Electric Sewing Machine Society [of Baltimore, Maryland], Annual Report of the Managers (1896).

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   18. Mary Katharine Conyngton: How to Help: A Manual of Practical Charity (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909), Chap. XV "Widows with Children," pp. 185-95.

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   19. Theodore Roosevelt, "Address to the White House Conference on Dependent Children," 1909.

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   20. New York State Commission on Relief for Widowed Mothers, Report on Relief (1914), (Albany: J. B. Lyon, 1914), "Introduction to the Report," p. 3.

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   21. U. S. Department of Labor, Children’s Bureau, Mothers’ Aid, 1931. Bureau Publication no. 220 (Government Printing Office, Washington, DC: 1933), pp. 1-39.

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   22. Kleinberg, Widows and Orphans First, chapter five. On the importance of race and gender in the Social Security Act see also Alice Kessler-Harris, "Designing Women and Old Fools: The Construction of the Social Security Amendments of 1939" in Linda K. Kerber, Alice Kessler-Harris, Kathryn Kish Sklar, eds., U.S. History as Women’s History: New Feminist Essays (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), pp. 87-106; and Mary Poole, "Securing Race and Ensuring Dependence: The Social Security Act of 1935" (Ph. D. Dissertation, Rutgers University, 2000).

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   23. Alice Kessler-Harris, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

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