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labor 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.

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A woman sitting over and holding an infant.
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Joe Biden’s new stimulus package includes provisions for a “Child Allowance” that economists estimate could cut child poverty in the United States by half. The allowance—paid out in monthly installments of $300 per month for each child under the age of 5, and $250 per month for older children— has champions on both the Left and the Right. The policy takes its cues from an even more generous proposal drafted by Mitt Romney, known as The Family Security Act.

Despite bipartisan interest in reducing child poverty, Republican lawmakers, including Mike Lee and Marco Rubio, have dismissed Child Allowances by claiming that “an essential part of being ‘pro-family’ is being ‘pro-work,’” and warning that the monthly allowances will discourage parents from seeking paid employment.

That fear, however, is substantially unfounded: the allowance is neither enough to live on, nor is it tied to wages, so the benefit is not depleted by earned income. But the fact that such a fear exists is telling. It is a fear that categorically separates “family” and “work,” and revolves around the assumption that the only forms of valuable labor deserving of compensation are those performed outside the home. That is, the only forms of valuable labor are those performed in spheres not traditionally associated with women—and women of color in particular—as care work is in the US.

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.

The goal of these pensions was to keep women in the home, and in the role of caregiver. In most states, mothers who received the grants had to agree to give up outside work, on the grounds that children became “delinquent” because their working mothers could not care for them. The rationale was that “women and children ought to be supported,” and in exchange for such support, needy mothers were expected to display their “natural dependency,” and prove their moral rectitude. The implication was the opposite of Eastman’s assertion that childcare was a form of work, as equal and necessary as any other: that “work” outside the home disrupted women’s natural role as dependent caregivers, and should be discouraged by state aid.

These prevailing social attitudes that women belonged in the home, that they were naturally dependent on men, and that only certain categories of “morally fit” women deserved the attention of the State, were part of a host of issues that Eastman believed she and her radical feminist colleagues needed to fight against in the wake of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment (women’s suffrage).

Eastman maintained that the vote itself was not enough to bring political, social and economic equality to American women. Indeed, she saw the suffrage victory as too narrow, and noted that because mainstream feminists like Alice Paul had “hushed up” subjects “like birth control and the rights of Negro women” during the battle for the ballot, American women who had fought for the vote could not be “congratulating ourselves that the feminist movement had begun in America. As it is all we can say is that the suffrage movement is ended.”

In her landmark 1920 essay, “Now We Can Begin,” published in The Liberator, a “Journal of Revolutionary Progress,” which she founded and edited with her brother, Max Eastman, she laid out a four-fold platform for what the beginning of egalitarian American feminism might look like: a balance of work, life, and labor both inside and outside the home.

The first pillar of her platform was freedom of occupational choice and equal pay. Second was “a revolution in the early training and education of both boys and girls,” so that it would be considered “womanly as well as manly to earn your own living, to stand on your own feet,” and “manly as well as womanly to know how to cook and sew and clean and take care of yourself in the ordinary exigencies of life.”

This “feminist education” was needed because women, who had in reality been working outside the home for generations, saw their labor doubled when their male partners did not share domestic responsibilities. “These bread-winning wives,” she wrote, “have not yet developed homemaking husbands.” Instead “the woman simply adds running the home to her regular outside job.” Equality meant not only opening up all avenues of traditional paid employment to women, but also dignifying and “sharing the burden and joy” of all labor, including domestic labor and childcare.

Her vision was strikingly egalitarian, and thereby aimed not only at empowering women, but also at creating parity between men and women—and between anyone who chose to engage in care work and anyone who did not. Of “Domestic Science,” she wrote in 1924, “why not welcome the idea of a compulsory course… but insist that it be general—for boys and girls alike?” That way, “those who like it, of either sex, can take it up as a trade.” Her point was that all people should be equally prepared, and equally free, to make choices around what type of personal and professional lives they wished to lead.

Accordingly, the third pillar of her program was “voluntary motherhood,” access to birth control and information about family planning. “Birth control” she maintained, “is just as elementary an essential in our propaganda as ‘equal pay,’” because, birth control, like equal pay, was a labor issue. Birth control afforded women, “some freedom of occupational choice; those who do not wish to be mothers will not have an undesired occupation thrust upon them by accident, and those who do wish to be mothers may choose in a general way how many years of their lives they will devote to the occupation of childraising.”

Eastman had two children with her second husband, Walter Fuller. The family practiced “Marriage Under Two Roofs,” wherein Crystal lived with her children and supported them, and Walter kept a separate apartment. As a voluntary mother and a breadwinner, Crystal Eastman recognized that raising children was both an act of love and an occupation, which a woman might choose, just as she might choose any other occupation. That recognition brought Eastman “to the fourth feature” of her four-pronged program of equality: the Motherhood Endowment. She wrote:

It seems that the only way we can keep mothers free, at least in a capitalist society, is by the establishment of a principle that the occupation of raising children is peculiarly and directly a service to society, and that the mother upon whom the necessity and privilege of performing this service naturally falls is entitled to an adequate economic reward from the political government. It is idle to talk of real economic independence for women unless this principle is accepted.

Some women in the socialist feminist and pro-birth control movements at the time, including the activist, nurse, and educator Margaret Sanger, saw childrearing not only as a service to society, but as an unpaid service to the capitalist class, which actively blocked access to information about birth control because it relied on working-class women to produce large families so that their children could in turn staff sweatshops. A woman’s struggle for control of her body was, in a literal sense, a struggle over the means of production.

Eastman’s claim that childrearing was a valid form of work, and that there should be “definite economic rewards for one’s work when it happens to be ‘home-making,’” was broader than that: she saw that a motherhood endowment could help ensure equal pay, because it would remove justification for the “family wage” paid to men on the assumption that men were supporting their families while women were not. Further, she believed that the motherhood endowment would free women from the “dependent state” of performing unpaid labor, arguing, along with her National Women’s Party colleague Doris Stevens, that “the home-keeping, child-rearing wife” shared a “working-partner’s claim on the family income that her household labor helped make possible.”

What separated her from so many other feminist thinkers of her generation, was that she saw women’s desire for fulfillment on many fronts—through love and sex, through paid work, and through family—as equally natural, and equally valid. She wrote in 1918:

Feminists are not nuns. That should be established. We want to love and to be loved, and most of us want children, one or two at least. But we want our love to be joyous and free—not clouded with ignorance and fear. And we want our children to be deliberately, eagerly called into being, when we are at our best, not crowded upon us in times of poverty and weakness.

Because she understood that many women wanted children at the same time they wanted economic freedom, she believed the feminist movement would need to reconcile those two objectives. “If the feminist program goes to pieces on the arrival of the first baby,” she wrote “it is false and useless.” The motherhood endowment, coupled with access to birth control, offered an answer here too: it could free women not only from unwanted, unpaid labor, but also free women to embrace motherhood—when they wanted to.

There is strong evidence that Crystal Eastman was absolutely right: consider that American women are currently having fewer children than they’d like, and that Canada, which offers a more generous child allowance than the one included in Biden’s newest aid package, has a higher proportion of women in the labor force. Neither of these Child Allowance policies reaches the level of compensation that Crystal Eastman envisioned, a level that would make childrearing a fully compensated vocation for any parent who wished it.

We have not yet fully realized any of the four pillars of Eastman’s equality program. More than 100 years ago, she wrote in “Now We Can Begin” that “with a generous endowment of motherhood provided by legislation, with all laws against voluntary motherhood and education in its methods repealed, with the feminist ideal of education accepted in home and school, and with all special barriers removed in every field of human activity, there is no reason why woman should not become almost a human thing.”