Money  /  Antecedent

The Feminist History of “Child Allowances”

The Biden administration’s proposed “child allowances” draw on the feminist thought of Crystal Eastman, who advocated “motherhood endowments” 100 years ago.

By offering monetary benefits to parents of young children, the Child Allowance has the potential to help challenge assumptions around the meaning and value of work. “One of the bigger symbolic purposes of the child allowance is to say the work a parent does is valid—it’s valid as work,” Samuel Hammond, director of poverty and welfare policy at the center-right Niskanen Center, told the New York Times. “I do think it’s a market failure in capitalist economies that there isn’t a parenting wage.”

The socialist feminist leader Crystal Eastman came to that conclusion a century ago. At the time, “Child Allowances” were known as “Motherhood Endowments,” and were a part of Eastman’s vision for women’s economic and social equality. Eastman (1881–1928) was a labor lawyer, peace activist, socialist, and radical suffragist who, among other achievements, drafted the first workers’ compensation legislation in the United States (~1910); co-founded the Congressional Union for Women’s Suffrage (1913), and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (1915); co-founded the ACLU (1920); and co-authored the original Equal Rights Amendment (1923).

She wrote in 1920:

What is the problem of women’s freedom? It seems to me to be this: how to arrange the world so that women can be human beings, with a chance to exercise their infinitely varied gifts in infinitely varied ways, instead of being destined by the accident of their sex to one field of activity—housework and child-raising. And second, if and when they choose housework and child-raising, to have that occupation recognized by the world as work, requiring a definite economic reward and not merely entitling the performer to be dependent on some man.

The idea of a Motherhood Endowment as a conduit to personal freedom through economic empowerment, which would allow a woman to support herself and her children, without forced dependency on a man, based on wages earned for the real and necessary work of childrearing, stood in radical opposition to the arguments—and statutes—that underpinned “Mother’s Pensions,” state-level grants made to single mothers in the United States between 1911 and 1935.

Eligibility for the Pensions, and the amounts they offered, varied from state to state, but most states required that applicants be “deserving mothers who are without the support of the normal breadwinner.” Therefore, it was necessary that recipients be either widowed or abandoned, or in the case that they were married, that their husbands be “incapacitated,” either physically or mentally.