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Maternalist Reforms in the United States were experiments in public policy that took the form of laws providing for state assistance for mothers with young children that did not have the financial support of a male member of the household. This assistance took the form of financial reimbursements, as well as limits on the maximum working hours for women. These reforms arose from the belief that government has an obligation and interest in protecting and improving the living standards of women and children.

Maternalism is defined by Koven and Michel as a variety of ideologies that "exalted womens capacities to mother and extended to society as a whole the values of care, nurturance and morality", and was intended to improve the quality of life of women and children.[1] To improve the conditions of women and children these policies attempted to reconcile the conflicting roles placed on women during this time period. As single mothers were responsible for both supporting their families and raising children, government assistance would reduce the probability that they could be charged with neglecting their "home duties".[2]

Maternal public policy emerged in the United States following the landmark United States Supreme Court decision Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412 (1908). This case upheld the constitutionality of a law that limited the maximum working hours of women, reversing the previous Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), in which setting maximum working hours for men was held to be unconstitutional. The decision in Muller was based on a scientific and sociological study that demonstrated that the government has a legitimate interest in the working conditions of women as they have the unique ability to bear children.[3]

While maternalist reforms won protection for working people during a time in which labour movements enjoyed few gains and asserted the right of women to participate in the public realm, they also perpetuated ideas harmful to the advancement of women to a point of equality with men. Some of these ideas include the belief that women ought to be mothers and that ideally men should be financially supporting the family.[4]


  1. Koven, S., & Michel, S. (1993). Mothers of a New World, Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States (). Routledge.
  2. Barney, S. L. (1999). Maternalism and the Promotion of Scientific Medicine during the Industrial Transformation of Appalachia, 1880-1930. NWSA Journal, 11(3), 68-92.
  3. Woloch, N. (1996). Muller v. Oregon: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press.
  4. Brandeis, L. D. (1907). The Brandeis Brief. Retrieved January 27, 2010, from
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