Society for the History of Children and Youth

No. 10
Summer 2007

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Keynote Address

Linda Gordon, New York University

Linda Gordon addressing audience


One of the most transcultural markers of what historians call modernity has been an ethical or at least discursive prioritizing of the welfare of children.  While the neglect of children in traditional patriarchal societies has often been exaggerated, there is no question that the dominant contemporary ethic is to put children first.  Some religious cultures California trace the roots of this priority to the rejection of the born-in-sin attitude toward children and its replacement by the notion of childhood innocence.  In all culture this transformation accompanied the metamorphosis of children from useful to useless, from workers to objects of sentimentality.  This sentimentality intensified the notion of children as innocents.  With implications not only cultural and theological but also political and social, the concept of innocence worked by contrast with those not innocent, who were in this case adults, tainted by knowledge, by surrender to temptation, by sin. 

I want to argue that innocence has been an idea dangerous both for children and for the rest of us.  It is a concept saturated with magical thinking and Manichean religiosity.  I believe that in today´s company I can make this argument without being labeled a moral monster.

My evidence derives from outcomes.  In the US, shaped by the most pious and hypocritical of political cultures, the sacralizing and prioritizing of children has produced terrible conditions for many, many American children.  A few reminders: the second worst infant mortality rate in the advanced world (only Latvia does worse); 22 percent of children, 13 million of them, living in poverty, the worst record in the advanced world; and the lowest rate of overall social expenditure, at about three percent of gdp.  Other nations have done better but the US model is spreading.

I will make this argument through looking back at several bodies of my previous research.  But first allow me to tell a short story, one that some of you may be familiar with.
In NYC in the 19th century, child welfare advocates developed a system of “rescuing” the city’s so-called “orphans” by shipping them west on “orphan trains.”  In fact, most of the children shipped out were not orphans but children of poor single mothers who could not manage to support their children at a time when there were no welfare programs to help them.  The “rescuers” were motivated not only by sympathy for the children but also by their desire to combat disorder and violations of what they considered proper family values among the poor, to rid the city of undesirables and to avoid spending tax money on aid to the poor. 
Most of these orphans were Catholics, while the leading child-savers were Protestants, who placed the children in Protestant homes.  To the Catholics this policy seemed a form of genocide.  In response, Catholics opened an orphanage, the New York Foundling Hospital.  Soon the numbers of their children outstripped the New York homes they could find and required a wider search for placements.  They inaugurated their own orphan trains to place children in the west. 

In 1904 a priest from two small towns in the Arizona territory persuaded his parishioners to volunteer to take 40 orphans. But the New York Catholics did not understand who the Arizona Catholics were.  Indeed, at first the Sisters of Charity did not think they cared, because to them the all-important division was between Catholics and Protestants, and the priest had assured them that these families were all Catholics in good standing.  The Arizona Catholics were, of course, Mexicans.  Even had the New Yorkers known this in advance, they probably would not have been able to predict the response of the whites, or Anglos as they were known, because racial formations and boundaries were considerably different in NY than in the west.  The New Yorkers would have described these orphans as being of the Irish "race" while in Arizona they were, simply, Anglo.  The fact that the children were Catholic and the Anglos mainly Protestant seemed of no importance to the Anglos.

Something unexpected had happened to these orphans as they crossed the country: they became white.  I picture their train puffing along, crossing rivers, then mountains, then desert, carrying them to whiteness.

The Arizona Anglo women, on the far frontier of the US in a territory not yet a state, responded to the situation from the same premises as the most well-known big-city Progressive women: they put the best interest of the child first.  They felt certain that placing the white kids with Mexicans was a form of child abuse and they began to convince their fellow citizens that the children needed “rescue.” They challenged men to show their manliness and soon a posse formed itself, traveled through the night to kidnap the orphans at gunpoint.

The suit went ultimately to the US Supreme Court which ruled, as had all lower courts, in favor of the vigilante kidnapers.  The Supreme Court found that, although children did not have a habeas corpus right, they did have a claim to the protection of her/his best interests.  This court then interpreted those best interests, of course, racially: “the child in question is a white, Caucasian child [who was] ... abandoned ... to the keeping of a Mexican Indian, whose name is unknown to the respondent, but one [who is]... by reason of his race, mode of living, habits and education, unfit to have the custody, care and education of the child ...”  

The Arizona orphan abduction was by no means unique.  Between 1910 and 1975, white Australians stole 100,000 children from their aboriginal parents, giving the light-skinned children to white couples to adopt and the dark-skinned to orphanages.  In Israel, Ashkenazi (European) Jewish women, with the help of doctors, stole from hospitals babies born to Sephardic Yemeni Jewish mothers.  Inuit and other Native American children were forcibly removed from their families by US and Canadian governments.  Irish children were stolen by the British, children of murdered and imprisoned Argentinian dissenters stolen by the ruling military.  There are many more examples.  It turns out that elites often believed that the best interest of the child often justified taking children away from the poor and those they consider inferior.

After my book about this case was published, another struggle–this time over a single child–made me feel as if the Arizona story was being re-enacted.  A group of Cubans tried to reach the US by boat and a woman passenger drowned.  Her 5-year-old son, Elián González, survived and was taken in by some relatives in Miami, somewhat distant relatives whom he had never seen.  They refused to surrender him to his father in Cuba on the grounds that he would have a much better future in the US.  This claim, as I am sure you can see, was dubious on its face.  Were it to be operative, any of us who live in rich countries could descend on any family in a poor country and take one or more of their children.  Is it not obvious that a child in Sweden would have a better education, better health, better living conditions than a child in the Sudan?

Elián’s case produced a huge and protracted international struggle, ended only when federal marshals finally enforced the entirely clear law, took the boy by force from his Miami relatives, and sent him back to his father. 

These two stories concern custody disputes, and legal scholars have been studying critically the problems of finding justice in these matters, especially the dangers inherent in the best interest of the child principle.  I want to turn instead to four other areas of policy designed to protect children, namely legitimacy, family violence, welfare and immigration.  (I’m not going to spend equal time on all of them because I don’t know an equal amount about all of them, but I hope to say enough to show their interconnection in produce perverse consequences for children.)

In most of the world, campaigns for children’s wellbeing were led by women, and the political stance on which they based their activism was maternalist.  (By this I mean, first, that they identified motherhood and love of children so closely with women’s destiny, a destiny both biological and cultural, that second, they considered women the authoritative spokespeople for children’s welfare.  Third, and equally important, these campaigners were often elite women, from educated and prosperous classes, and they considered themselves the anointed guardians and uplifters not only of children but also of less fortunate women.  In other words, their maternalism extended to their poor sisters and included responsibility for raising the moral and cultural level especially of poor mothers so that they would raise children properly.  They were social mothers of the society.  Fourth, they promoted the nationalist, democratic, and meritocratic notion that children–even poor children--were in some ways the wards of the public and thus the state, representing the nation’s future).  This well-meaning approach, arising from a deep and genuine concern for children, produced some perverse results.

As modern family norms increased the stigma on illegitimacy, maternalists became concerned with the injustice and stigma the category placed on innocent children—they should not be burdened by the sins of their mothers. The maternalists campaigned to abolish the category not because of its impact on women but strictly on the basis of its impact on children.  They accepted, even sometimes promoted, the standard that sex and reproduction were acceptable only within marriage, a standard that caused material harm to many women but fewer men.  At the same time the maternalists’ commitment to women as mothers led to an understanding that fathers’ responsibilities were limited to financial support.  Among legitimate children, as custody shifted toward women and fathers were ordered to pay child support, fathers often resented the obligation to pay for children who had been taken from them.  Outside of marriage, men could deny their paternity until very recently and the maternalists did nothing to challenge the stigma on unmarried motherhood.  Relying on that stigma, many state and third parties refused assistance to the children of immoral women.  It was only in 1968 that the US Supreme court ruled that illegitimate orphans were entitled to wrongful death payments.

Demands for proper motherhood became more exacting as regulation of “cruelty to children” developed starting in the 1870s.  At first the anti-child-abuse discourse strengthened the women's-rights movement’s critique of male domination in the private sphere.  As in temperance, the anti-child-abuse movement made male violence a powerful subtext.  Child protection was in an important way antipatriarchal, because it intervened in fathers' and parents' authority over their children.  Child abuse soon came to include sexual abuse of children, a virtually exclusively male crime which had long been protected by Victorian taboos of silence.  Moreover, mothers often forced child-protection agencies to concern themselves with wife-beating and to recognize it as a social problem requiring public action.  Overall, acknowledging that there was parenting so bad that the state needed to protect children, and that parental rights should sometimes be severed, changed the culture toward much greater acceptance of formal public responsibility for child welfare, which in modern society meant greater governmental responsibility.

Yet the results were mixed.  The campaign had class and cultural consequences that were not always progressive.  Anti-child abuse agencies targeted working-class or poor parents, often those perceived as racially different, and could not distinguish between cultural differences in parenting, poverty, and abuse.  They prosecuted cases in which the alleged child neglect consisted of children's labor or nonattendance at school.  But poor parents often needed their children at home or work; and to those from farm or peasant backgrounds, it seemed irrational and disrespectful that adult women should work while able-bodied children remained idle.  The child savers opposed the common practice of leaving children unattended and allowing them to play and wander in the streets.  But working-class children lived in tiny crowded hot tenements, and their mothers had no leisure to take them to parks.

I am not saying that child abuse was merely a figment of cultural bias or an inevitable result of poverty.  On the contrary, child abuse was identified as a problem even by its perpetrators, many of whom, despite their awareness of the discrimination they might encounter, sought the help of child-protection agencies.  In fact, the most common source of appeals was poor mothers themselves.  For women and children, the biases of the agencies were often preferable to the abuse they experienced at home.  Children sought help against their parents.  Women manipulated agencies concerned with child abuse to get help against wife abuse.  Mothers also sought help in their own child-raising, often coming to agencies because they felt themselves unable to provide what they considered good mothering.  .  Child-protection agencies saw themselves as teaching good standards to poor and ignorant parents, but in fact they were encountering people with their own views about good family life, who tried to use these agencies in their own interest. 

Still, the paradigm for intervening in family violence was protecting children from their parents.  There was little concern with nonfamilial cruelty to children–with factories and industrial agriculture that overworked children, with the physical and chemical hazards to children in these workplaces.  The child protectors did not address physical punishment in the schools or decry the unsafe housing and public health hazards in the neighborhoods of the urban poor.    They operated on the basis of an extremely ideological conception of a child’s needs, a conception based on the view of a superior class toward an inferior one.  And we must keep in mind that 90 percent of children in need of protection were neglected rather than abused.  The cases of terrible violence toward children that get publicity are e exceptional, not typical.

In the discourse about child abuse, their rhetoric characteristically referred to children as innocent victims.  This language, familiar today as part of antiabortion talk, needs close attention because if the children were innocent then by implication the parents were suspect, at least potentially noninnocent.  The greater the emphasis on the innocent child, the harder it was to avoid a presumption of parental guilt.

This parental guilt became most frequently maternal.  Increasingly in the early 20th century the parents against whom children needed protection were specifically mothers.  The discourse de-emphasized child abuse and sexual abuse, often or always male crimes, and featured instead child neglect, by definition a crime of mothers.  (Fathers’ only obligation to children was economic support, and their failure to supply this was defined as non-support, not neglect, with far different meanings and consequences.)  Mothers were often double-binded–blamed for children's failures, but rarely credited for their successes.  Child protection agencies did not often recognize the actual conditions of mothering, which so often included not only poverty but also women's own subordination and frequent victimization.

Thus child protection, although it arose from maternalism, tended to oppose mothers' to children's interests.  Child protectors relied on a policing model of crime and punishment, in which children were innocent and mothers were not.  Their non-innocence of Victorian sexual and gender standards flowed into non-innocence in parenting.

But what resources did the child protectors have to replace these defective mothers?  When courts convicted parents, children were punished.   Abused children might be sent to reformatories along with delinquents, or placed out with unsupervised foster parents eager to exploit their labor, typically separated from their siblings.  Children regularly suffered more from the remedy than from the crime.  Putting children first did not bestow adequate public funds on substitutes for parental homes.  The child protectors were caught in a vice between miserable homes and miserable institutions or foster homes.   (This is not to say that orphanages or foster homes were inevitably and necessarily bad; the truth is that they have always been so regularly underfunded that they never got a fair trial.)  Public provision for children was abysmal for several reasons, but among them was a rhetoric of vile mothers, even as the family economy continued to rest on child-raising exclusively by mothers.  To put it in modern policy-speak, mothers seemed to be the only way to “deliver” services to children. When mothers were no good, why should they be supported?

At several points in the history of child protection, experts recognized that prosecuting parents rarely helped children, and urged help for parents.  But child protection always ran up against miserly welfare policy and this kind of help was rare and stingy.  Thus child protection was enfeebled by the paradox that in sacralizing children, and thereby gaining widespread rhetorical support, protective efforts failed because the ignominy laid on parents reinforced a stingy attitude toward offering them aid.  Yet what would have benefited most neglected children most was helping their parents.  In other words, overriding the rights of poor parents did not usually lead to better fulfillment of children’s needs.

The innocent-child, children-first orientation in the development of public assistance programs also ended badly for children.   The first modern American public welfare programs, state aid programs for widowed mothers, pushed by the women's movement and adopted by 40 states between 1910 and 1920, looked promising at first.  These stipends recognized and established mothers as heads of households, notwithstanding the fact that their headship was understood as a misfortune; and opponents of mothers' pensions accurately identified mothers' aid as a threat to male dominance.  Mothers' pensions underlined interdependence between mothers and children--it was bad for children to lose their mothers and bad for women to lose their children; and the mothers' pensions recognized that mothering was socially valuable labor.  At the beginning, the premise that mothers should not have to lose their children, or children lose their mothers, because of poverty seemed to become close to inaugurating a mutual right among children and mothers.

But suspicion and stigmatizing of lone mothers quickly dispensed with any rights talk for poor mothers or children.   Perhaps it was impossible at the time for elite women to help less fortunate mothers without also condescending to them.  Whether inevitable or not, most of the state mothers' pensions required that only “worthy” mothers should be supported--thus communicating that many other mothers were unworthy; so most states helped only widows.  All the programs founded that recipient mothers needed counseling and supervising to make sure their mothering was good enough–a requirement imposed on widowed as well as separated or divorced mothers, thus communicating universal suspicion.  In the two decades of the operation of the state mothers' pensions, the worthy-mother requirement--combined of course with puny financing and nativist and racist prejudice--deprived many children of help.

Then the Depression of the 1930s created a crisis and an opportunity to expand the welfare state.  During the New Deal the putting children first strategy indelibly marked the American welfare state. The social security program for children emerged markedly inferior–not because of disregard for children but because of the very maternalist emphasis on protecting children.  A major factor was the continued hostility to mothers’s employment.  Children needed protection now from mothers who worked outside the home, just as the economy forced more of them into wage labor.  So, in line with the putting children first strategy, the program provided stipends only for children, not for their caretakers.  But for the children to receive help, their mothers had to be screened and guided.  By this time the planners had come to understand that the single-mother families who needed this help were composed not only of widows--who qualified as the deserving poor, i.e., in this case, innocent mothers--but increasingly of divorced and separated women and sometimes even of never-married women.  Wishing to avoid the moralistic hostility such women provoked, the designers accepted the odd fiction that children's support could somehow be separated from their parents'.  They continued the rhetoric about "innocent" children, arguing that they should not be burdened by the sins of their parents.   In the second half of the 20th century one can track intensifying stigmatizing of lone mothers as lazy and immoral.  While children had once served as a surrogate for mothers, a means of increasing women's power, as in the campaign for maternal custody, they were now being given aid despite their mothers. 

The almost ludicrous assumption here was that the caretaker could starve but the child would be well-nourished.  In the US these assumptions continue today in bizarre ways.  Several programs have attempted to deliver resources exclusively to children.  Supplemental food programs, such as food stamps, have at times limited recipients to those under 18.  In the crisis faced by the 47 million people without health insurance, one common proposal has been to provide care for children only.  Consider the consequences: the children get orange juice and cheese but the law requires the parent not to drink or eat these.  The child with asthma gets treatment but the parent does not.

Even if such invidious inequities were workable, their impact on family life might be odious.  Among the many “family values” that have become political slogans, one that is unspoken but widely shared is that family is a site of generosity, caring, and sharing based on needs rather than earnings.  Even over-the-top consumerism has not entirely eradicated the notion that material goods and services are to be shared in families and that family members look out for each other.  Families try to provide medical care for the person who needs it; they no longer advocate allotting the best food to the male head of family; they try to promote responsibility for other relatives.  Keeping a child in good health while her parents suffer would seem uncomfortable, to say the least.  Not to mention the question of whether an unwell parent can provide for a child.

Another legacy of the American welfare program was the premise that government should have the responsibility to ascertain that the child was being raised in a healthy environment.   Beyond issues of health and nutrition, the "suitable home" requirement became the basis for a great deal of snooping into the lives of "welfare mothers:"  did they have boyfriends?  were they buying clothes for themselves instead of for their children?  did they have prohibited resources such as automobiles, telephones, or savings accounts?   The constant surveillance had the effect of intensifying suspicion that most welfare recipients were undeserving.  The premise was of course that an immoral or cheating mother could defile innocent children.  The problem was that the punishment of the immoral mother was--cutting off support for the children. 

This conundrum repeated the dilemma of protection from family violence, the question of how to “deliver” resources to a child.  For better or worse, most children require adult care.  And few social communities have provided systems of care that could substitute adequately for family adults–who in the main continue to be mothers. Public provision for children without a parent was usually so stingy that no matter how bad a parental home was--morally, economically, or in terms of abuse--institutional or foster-home placements were on average always worse.  So the “innocent” child deprived of an “unfit” adult caretaker–even assuming that the determination of fitness was reasonable--typically suffered worse than the alleged wrongdoer. 

The global increase in immigration presents new dilemmas in policy toward children, dilemmas that remind me of the problems of putting children first.  I want to discuss here an issue prominent in the US which may become common throughout the developed world as global inequality becomes more visible.  Among immigrants’ reasons for coming to the developed world, a particularly strong motive is the search for opportunity for children.  For some this means an individual adult who immigrates for the purpose of sending remittances back to the family.  But the migration is also responding to one of the pro-child policies of the US-- that a child born in the US is a citizen of the US.  This policy, which at first looks like favoritism for children, also results in perverse outcomes. 

Consider one in a recent series of raids by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)–now part of Homeland Security--to deport “illegal aliens.”  In New Bedford, MA, on March 6 of this year, ICE agents seized 361 employees of a low-wage manufacturing firm.  Arrested without warning, they were put immediately on planes headed for a Texas prison to await deportation, not even allowed to make telephone calls.  These immigrants left approximately 100 children in school or with babysitters, with no one coming to pick them up—they could not be deported because they were citizens. ICE agents released a few detainees who they established were sole caregivers to children and eight pregnant women “for humanitarian reasons.”  The rest were given the option of letting their children stay with a guardian or putting them in state care.  Journalists reported absolute panic among children and adults of this immigrant community.  One nursing infant had to be hospitalized for dehydration.

This was not an isolated case.  Approximately 3.1 million American citizen children in the US have at least one non-citizen parent.  Inversely, three of four children of immigrants are US citizens.  1 in 10 American families contain both citizens and noncitizens.1   The current ICE raids had arrested 18,000 as of April 29, 2007.2   Immigrant parents of citizen children are losing jobs, health care, welfare payments, drivers’ licenses, access to schools.  In this case one might say that both rights and needs claims have been overridden.

A similarly perverse outcome flows from the rhetoric of innocent victims in war.  Perhaps there is a human, a pre-ideological sensibility that violence to children is worse than violence to adults.  But we need to consider carefully who are the non-innocents.  We know that decent, even gentle folk, including children, including women, can be made astonishingly brutal when organized into violence institutions and structures.

The innocent-child strategy has yielded mixed results.  It proved difficult to "deliver" services that met children’s needs except through parents.   Promoting the "innocence" and deservingness of children did not get them much material help, and the maternalists’ hope that kids could open the door to a maternal welfare state was disappointed.  Giving to children while those around them did without proved unworkable.  Using threats to their children’s welfare to discipline women did not improve their effectiveness as mothers.  Defining the interests of children separately from those of their parents did not help children.  Allowing the needs of children to trump the rights of parents did not help children.  In fact, identifying children as uniquely deserving tended to undercut adults' claims to public help, which then made it more difficult to help children. 

Moreover, from a global perspective the alleged favoring of children has done little to stop exploitation of child workers and has often promoted disrespect, to say the least, for patterns of parenting that differ from those of dominant cultures.  In fact children’s “innocence” has functioned to reproduce and even strengthen some forms of domination.

The children’s rights movement sought bravely to protect children, and its achievements have been of great value.  But its lasting victories have been mainly in connection with children’s rights vis-à-vis their parents.  Acceptance of public responsibility for child welfare has been much weaker in the US.  As neo-liberalism advances, we should perhaps be alert to similar erosion of public responsibility elsewhere.

I find myself thinking back to the ideals of a social-democra6tic moment in US history—President Roosevelt’s four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.  Children need all these freedoms but achieving them, especially freedom from want and fear, may require, ironically, an end to the innocent-child rhetoric.

1 More than 3.1 million American children have at least one illegal immigrant parent, said Jeffrey S. Passel, a demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center. May 1, 2007 As Deportation Pace Rises, Illegal Immigrants Dig In

2,1,867797.story [Story no longer available at the Chicago Tribune website -- ed.]

© Society for the History of Children and Youth, 2007

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