Pragmatic Utopia #25: Women’s Day & Obamacare Repeal in Historical Perspective

This week, you might have spent some time thinking about the Republicans’ effort to repeal Obamacare and about International Women’s Day. I did, especially as I saw echoes and lessons related to both in the book I was reading, Theda Skocpol’s Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy. I’ll focus mostly on the aspects of the book related to current events, but first I’ll give some background.

At the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg in 1913, Union and Confederate veterans shake hands.

In the history of American social policy, the big, ever-present question is: why the U.S. doesn’t have a comprehensive welfare state like so many European countries do? Skocpol set out to write a book about this, and started off by researching the decades prior to the New Deal looking for clues as to why Social Security didn’t end up more generous or why universal healthcare never happened. What she stumbled upon, though, was evidence of a proto-welfare state in a period (pre-New Deal) when nobody thinks there was one. So the focus of the book shifted. She told the story of why Civil War veterans and widowed mothers got pensions, and why “regular” working men didn’t. The short story is that veterans and widows were seen as helpless, deserving recipients while working men were expected to provide for their families through wages alone. The longer story entails a theoretical move, which Skocpol calls a “polity-centered approach,” which explains the success of various interest groups based on the “fit” between their structure and the structure of the relevant government bodies. I’ll only be able to get into this theory as it applies to the examples below, but I hope to write more about it later.

Pensions for Union veterans were the most significant welfare state policy in the 19th century. In reading about them, I found myself thinking about how government benefits programs work in general, with direct relevance to Obamacare and perhaps relevance to the basic income debate down the road. One lesson–and there are many other examples of this–is that benefits programs don’t get taken away; if anything they tend to balloon over time. During the Civil War itself, Congress made arrangements to pay injured soldiers a pension. A benefits schedule dictated what you could get paid based on the extent of your injuries, with distinctions down to a missing finger versus a thumb. In 1877, Congress created a process for veterans to dispute the amount they had or had not received in prior years and apply for back payments. This quickly became the dominant activity in federal politics. In one session of the Senate, “private” pension bills–those adding a specific list of names to the pension rolls–accounted for the majority of bills passed.

The corrupt, patronage-oriented nature of 19th century politics is crucial  to understanding why pensions became so all-consuming. Skocpol, drawing on Theodore Lowi’s framework, says politics in this era was fundamentally distributive–oriented around giving out goodies–rather than regulatory or redistributive. So favorable treatment of pension applications (even fraudulent ones) could win votes. This became even more relevant after 1890, when pension eligibility was opened up to all veterans–not just those who were injured–and their dependents. Middle- and upper-class people, especially those interested in government reform, saw abuse of the pension system as the greatest sin of the whole Gilded Age. Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard, switched parties from Republican to Democrat because he was so disgusted by kickbacks being laundered through pensions (the pensions, as I discussed two weeks ago, were purely an instrument of the Northern/Midwestern Republican machine. Confederate veterans got almost nothing.).

And so here is the second lesson: even when a benefits program has too many beneficiaries to ever die, it can make so many enemies that no future reforms will be possible. In Skocpol’s telling, Progressive Era intellectuals failed to unite behind old-age or disability insurance for workers because the veterans pension experience had soured them on the idea of cash transfers. The notion of policy “lock-in” goes in two directions, then: the original program can never die, but if it’s too polarizing, nothing else can ever be born.

Skocpol contrasts the failure of the movement for federal workers’ pensions with the success of a campaign to provide pensions to widowed mothers. After rejecting the vision of a paternalistic welfare state, the nation installed a maternalistic one. In this section of the book I learned a lot about the history of women-centered social movements, and about the conditions for political movement success more generally. The place to start is to remind you what I’d forgotten: most of the really important social policy movements (or at least the successful ones) between, say, 1870 and 1920 were led by women. Temperance. Child labor laws. Settlement houses. Work hour restrictions. It’s an impressive list, especially for a political bloc that didn’t even have the right to vote.

Or maybe that’s less ironic than it seems. Skocpol argues that not having the franchise actually helped women’s groups (a) focus their energies on long-term visions of reform rather than short-term spoils and horse-trading; (b) articulate a unified agenda of “women’s interests” rather than splitting along party lines; and (c) and frame their interests as rooted in morality (feminine virtue, guardians of morality, etc.) rather than politics. Where men engaged in the distributive politics of the 19th century, women looked ahead to the redistributive and regulatory politics of the 20th century. It’s a brilliant argument, especially thanks to the initial shock value. Of course Skocpol approves of suffrage, but she was brave and original enough to point out that there are costs to being a voter, especially in a relatively dysfunctional political system.

The second lesson from the successful women’s movements of the Progressive Era is the importance of matching your movement infrastructure to the political institutions you are trying to persuade. Here, Skocpol contrasts women’s groups like the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) and Congress of Mothers (which later became the PTA) with the main group of Progressive intellectuals pushing for benefits for working men: the American Association of Labor Legislation (AALL). The AALL was a relatively elitist East Coast group lacking a strong relationship with unions and other workers’ groups in the states. It tried to exert influence on the national press, national politicians, and the federal judges who kept striking down labor protection laws. The women’s groups, on the other hand, had a more federal structure with affiliates in each state. These affiliates lobbied state legislatures to pass laws: in particular, laws allowing localities to give pensions to mothers and laws setting a maximum eight hour workday for women.  Skocpol argues that  elite, educated women were able to get on the same page with local women’s groups around the country (i.e., unlike the AALL and local labour groups) because “motherhood” / “womanhood” was a common identity across class lines. The upside of essentialism?

I see two weak points in Skocpol’s argument about the divergent success of Progressive women and Progressive men. First, on the topic of widows’ pensions, it doesn’t seem that there was ever much opposition to this policy from businesspeople. That, after all, was the perpetual enemy for Progressive attempts to protect workers. A second frequent obstacle was the courts. The women’s clubs successfully lobbied their state legislatures for laws restricting a woman’s workday to eight hours, but so did men; the difference is that only one of the two was ruled unconstitutional. In Lochner v. New York (1905), the Supreme Court ruled a maximum hour law unconstitutional for breaching “freedom of contract.” But in Muller v. Oregon (1908), the Court allowed a similar law just for women on the grounds that women had unique health needs. This latter outcome seems less an organizational coup than a product of the moralistic double standard women enjoyed(?) at the time.

These lessons from the achievements of Progressive women might strike you as a little troubling. The point about building a federal, state-based organization when state governments have authority is all well and good. But the idea about removing one’s group from the short-term incentives of electoral politics is harder to swallow. And the notion that women could win better treatment by playing up sexist stereotypes of vulnerability seems past its expiration date. Skocpol acknowledges this point in her conclusion, but sounds a note of regret that modern women have been so fully subsumed into party polarization that there is no cross-cutting feminist constituency (except in the pro-choice movement, which Skocpol seems to discount as a subset of party polarization).  It’s an ongoing question, I think, to what extent the feminist movement in American politics is coterminous with the Democratic Party. In our system, it’s hard for any issue movement not to get lumped inside one party or the other. The alternative, by the way, is not limited to courting Republican women; it might also be about leading Democrat and independent men to prioritize new issues. I’d be interested to hear what you think the future of feminist politics should be.

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