Sheila Rowbotham on 'Motherhood': Motherhood Endowment

Here are two extracts from Sheila Rowbotham, (2010) Dreamers of a New Day: Women who Invented the Twentieth Century, London, Verso, pp. 110-113 and pp. 114-115. Reprinted with kind permission from Verso.

The claim for cash from the state extended to a demand for an allowance or ‘pension’ for mothers who were bringing up children, and this proved to be the most controversial aspect of the social maternalist case. Before World War One, British labour movement women had begun to debate the idea of a weekly payment by the state to mothers for every dependent child as well as payment in kind – free milk and bread – to supplement the work of the welfare clinics. Support for mothers’ pensions also came from feminists and social reformers aiming to secure independence for women and to take low-waged working mothers out of the sweated labour market. The demand became a lifetime’s cause for the feminist Eleanor Rathbone, whose work on the Liverpool Board of Guardians and efforts to organize homeworkers had convinced her that poverty, rather than bad mothering, perpetuated problems in working-class families.[1]

During World War One the government paid Separation Allowances to the dependents of men in the services.[2] Working-class women came to appreciate the regularity of these allowances, which also began to legitimate a mother’s entitlement to resources from the state. In a 1918 letter to The Times, Eleanor Rathbone proposed ‘a simple extension of the system which has worked so admirably during the war of separation allowances paid direct to the mother who bears and rears the children, and proportional in amount to their number’.[3]

After the war, labour women’s organizations pressed the Labour Party for a policy of payments to women who were without male breadwinners. This was adopted as Labour Party policy in 1918, although not the extension of ‘pensions’ to unmarried women, which some labour women were advocating. In 1924 Labour was about to draft a bill for Widows’ and Orphans’ Pensions but lost office before it could be implemented. Nevertheless the Conservatives, with an eye on female voters, introduced Widows’ Pensions the following year.[4] In her 1925 Hypatia Dora Russell pressed for a wider allowance, arguing that women needed ‘recognition of their work – the most dangerous of trades’, by ‘endowment from the community’.[5] During the inter-war period, Eleanor Rathbone and the Family Endowment Society continued to campaign for allowances for mothers. They were prepared to accept contributions from employers – a proposal opposed by trade unionists, who suspected the allowances would be used by capital as a means of controlling men with families and result in lowered wages. Their fears were not without grounds. In 1926 the Royal Commission on the Coal Industry recommended wage cuts for single men, accompanied by family allowances to supplement the income of men with children.[6]

Some feminist and socialist women suspected that instead of the greater degree of independence envisaged by Rathbone, Mothers’ Pensions would be used to reinforce the notion that women’s place was in the home. Her proposal also provoked the anxiety that men would vanish and leave mothers to parent alone, while support from a male breadwinner appeared a more attractive proposition to many working-class women than state handouts, which were redolent of the humiliating Poor Law system. However, Eleanor Rathbone and the Family Endowment Society did not give up, and after the General Strike and the miners’ lockout of 1926, poverty was so acute that some of the suspicion of state benefits diminished. Between 1927 and 1930, a Joint Committee of the Labour Party and the Family Endowment Society took evidence; their final report recommended a state payment for children ‘in order to lighten the burden that now falls on the mothers who are trying to bring up a family on a hopelessly inadequate income’. The emphasis had shifted, from women’s autonomy as mothers to the relief of poverty. Nonetheless the report was free of the judgemental condescension which had characterized the Poor Law:

We are convinced that the money so disbursed would be spent both wisely and economically, since it is our view the mothers themselves are best able, because of their experience and training and their overwhelming personal interest, to apportion this expenditure in the way most calculated to secure the well-being of their children. No public authority, can, in our view, make money go as far in the provision of food, clothing and healthy surroundings, as can the mothers who have learned economy in the hard school of experience.[7]

The Committee wanted the state allowances to be paid through the Post Office, and to include illegitimate as well as legitimate children. In 1945 Family Allowances were finally to be introduced on these terms, as a universal benefit which avoided the shame of Poor Law provision.


The meaning of state endowment was interpreted in very different ways by its supporters. One strand stressed social efficiency. Reform around reproduction was presented as being in the long-term interests of state and society. As Eleanor Rathbone put it in 1918:

After all the rearing of families is not a sort of masculine hobby, like tobacco-smoking or pigeon flying. If nations are to continue to exist they must reproduce themselves, and the cost of doing so must be paid for somehow by the nation.[8]

Other advocates stressed basic social needs, the possibility of economic independence, and greater honour and respect for mothers as the recipients of state endowment. In an Independent Labour Party pamphlet, Socialists and the Family: A Plea for Family Endowment, the 1920s birth control campaigner Dorothy Jewson insisted that ‘Of all the services claiming attention and demanding national help and protection there is none of more importance to the nation than that of bearing and rearing healthy children.’[9] Another Labour Party activist, Dorothy Evans, said in 1925 that women wanted ‘some form of remuneration for mothers for the state service of rearing children’.[10]

British labour women tended to couch their demand for state endowment in terms of mothers’ contribution to society as a whole. However, in 1920 the American socialist feminist Crystal Eastman also stressed women’s rights as individuals. Caring for children should be recognized as work ‘requiring a definite economic reward and not merely entitling the performer to be dependent on some man’.[11] Eastman regarded motherhood endowment as giving women a choice between home and work, and argued that cash payments should be complemented by childcare and equality in employment. Linking mothering and employment, Eastman’s propositions built in the possibility of extending women’s capacity to determine how they should live.

Nonetheless, state payments troubled libertarian leftists in both countries. Ada Nield Chew argued in 1912 that the proposal would be utilized by the state to ‘command obedience’.[12] In the US, Benita Locke took up the cudgels in Margaret Sanger’s anarchist journal, the Woman Rebel. In a 1914 article entitled ‘Mothers’ Pensions: The Latest Capitalist Plot’, Locke argued that such payments would restrict women’s options. While conceding that Mothers’ Pensions advocates were well-intentioned, she warned that the ‘effect of social reforms... is often the reverse of that intended by their sponsors’.[13] Stella Browne, who supported family allowances, opposed Eleanor Rathbone’s emphasis on marriage or the morality of the mother as conditions for receiving the allowance. She saw such stipulations as an inadmissible extension of the state’s control over personal behaviour: ‘Why should the child or children be made to suffer if its two progenitors refuse to turn a brief – though possibly worthwhile – illusion into a permanent incompatibility?’[14]

Photo: LSE Library

  1. On Eleanor Rathbone, see Alberti, Eleanor Rathbone. ↩︎

  2. Scott, Feminism and the Politics of Working Women, pp. 119–20. ↩︎

  3. Eleanor Rathbone, Letter, The Times, 26 August 1918, p. 6. ↩︎

  4. Thane, ‘Visions of Gender’, p. 110. ↩︎

  5. Russell, Hypatia, p. 67. ↩︎

  6. Thane, ‘Visions of Gender’, p. 111. ↩︎

  7. Report on Family Allowances by a Special Joint Committee, TUC and Labour Party, London, 1930, quoted in ed. Suzie Fleming, Eleanor Rathbone, The Disinherited Family, Falling Wall Press, Bristol, 1986, p. 73. ↩︎

  8. Rathbone, Letter, The Times, 26 August 1918, p. 6. ↩︎

  9. Dorothy Jewson, Socialists and the Family: A Plea for Family Endowment (pamphlet), ILP Publication, London, no date, p. 5. ↩︎

  10. Dorothy Evans quoted in Graves, Labour Women, p. 104. ↩︎

  11. Eastman, ‘Now We Can Begin’, in Cook, Crystal Eastman, p. 54. ↩︎

  12. Ada Nield Chew, ‘Mother Interest and Child-Training’, Freewoman, 22 August 1912, in ed. Chew, Ada Nield Chew, pp. 250–51. ↩︎

  13. Benita Locke, ‘The Latest Capitalist Trap’, Woman Rebel, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 1914, p. 4. ↩︎

  14. Stella Browne, ‘The Disinherited Family’, New Generation, February 1925, p. 22. ↩︎

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