Date of Award

8-2015

Level of Access

Campus-Only Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

History

Advisor

Scott W. See

Second Committee Member

Jacques Ferland

Third Committee Member

Richard Judd

Additional Committee Members

Richard Blanke

Mazie Hough

Abstract

This dissertation examines the origins and implementation of mothers’ allowance legislation in Canada and the United States in the early to mid twentieth-century through the lens of two borderlands locations: the State of Maine and the Province of New Brunswick. Mothers’ allowances provided a monthly “payment for motherhood” to prevent the break-up of needy families bereft of their “natural” breadwinner. This legislation served as a key administrative and ideological template for all later state and federal expansions of public welfare in the United States and Canada, yet it has been understudied at the local level. These state and provincial programs varied significantly in terms of funding and eligibility, a diversity that has continued to persist into the present era. In addition, a comparative approach to this concept of “payment for motherhood” helps to reveal the ways that ideologies of motherhood were entwined with class-based notions of respectability, national identity, and social and political citizenship.

Close reading of case files, government records, and the records of both public and private charitable organizations help us to reconstruct the social landscape of poverty in Maine and New Brunswick, with a particular emphasis on the gendered experience of mothers in relation to evolving public welfare services. Potential recipients had to negotiate a complex terrain of social and legal expectations in order to access aid for their families, a process monitored by a new bureaucracy of field agents and investigators. In both places, state and provincial-level officials had great confidence in their superior abilities to improve families and manage public funds, and they envisioned a fairly swift end to poverty and ignorance through their skillful efforts. In addition, a concentrated study of Maine and New Brunswick reveals useful variations on the established historiography about infant mortality as a driving force behind the allowance movement. Overall, the focus on these two local programs as case studies provides critical insight into the gendered dynamic of the public welfare system, as well as the social lives of marginalized women, men, and families in the northeastern borderlands.

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