When the Washington state legislature enacted mothers’ pensions in 1913, the victory reflected both the newfound power of women voters and the important role that feminist activists played in creating change in the state. Mothers’ pensions were part of the same Progressive ideology that supported the suffrage movement. This maternalistic, civic-housekeeping impulse sought to empower women as a moral force in the public sphere and provided pension payments so mothers could continue to exert moral influence over their children in the home. Based on the philosophy that children were better off with their mothers and not in orphanages, the pension law provided payments to mothers who could not support their children because their husbands had died or abandoned them. The need for pensions became evident after the turn of the twentieth century when the numbers of single mothers rose because of increasing urbanization, abandonment, widowhood, and absence of family support in a more mobile society.
After Illinois became the first state in the country to create mothers’ pensions in 1911, a powerful women’s group pressured the Washington legislature to follow suit. The Washington Congress of Mothers and Parent-Teacher Associations (WCOM-PTA)—a merger of the Washington Congress of Mothers and the Federation of Parent-Teacher Associations—saw an important opening after the 1912 election. Progressives gained seats in the legislature, women had voting power, and for the first time two women were serving in the state house of representatives. State clubwomen advocated for a wide-ranging reform program for children and families, which included mothers’ pensions. The Grange and labor unions joined WCOM-PTA in supporting the measure. Although some charities opposed mothers’ pensions, fearing loss of control and influence, the legislation passed, partly because of legislators’ sensitivity to the interests of women voters.
At that time the law’s provisions were considered liberal although the county juvenile courts, which administered the program, could only provide $15 per month for the first child and $5 for each additional child to mothers in families who had lost the male breadwinner through death or abandonment. The 1915 legislature made provisions more stringent by denying benefits to abandoned women and tightening residency requirements. Although the funds provided much-needed assistance to needy families, administrators sometimes used the law to regulate morality, discriminate against women of color and immigrants, and to spy on women receiving funding. Critics thought it encouraged laziness and dependency. In 1919, women’s groups again campaigned to revise the law by calling it a “child maintenance” act. This legislation broadened the categories of those eligible for benefits by including divorced, abandoned, and never-married mothers.
Mothers’ pensions were the forerunner of more encompassing reforms. During the 1920s and the Depression, welfare efforts turned to assisting unemployed men. By 1935 the federal Social Security Act created Aid to Dependent Children (ADC). The Washington State ADC followed in 1937. The program title changed to Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1960, and then in 1996 to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which continues today.
Information for this section comes from Michael Reese, “To Help Her Live the Right Kind of Life — Mothers’ Pensions in King County, 1913-1937,” in More Voices, New Stories: King County, Washington’s First 150 Years. Project of the Pacific Northwest Historians Guild, 189-214, ed. Mary C. Wright (Seattle: King County Landmarks & Heritage Commission, 2002) and an email from Michael Reese to Shanna Stevenson, August 28, 2008.