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Towle, Charlotte: A Perspective

Fitting Charlotte Towle Into The History Of Welfare Thought In The U.S.

by Linda Gordon, Ph.D., New York University

(Editor’s Note: This paper was prepared for a Conference in Honor of Charlotte Towle sponsored by the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration May 30, 1996.)

Charlotte Towle came into my work accidentally and peripherally. I saw her from a variety of standpoints she didn’t share: as an historian, as a feminist, as a citizen of the Reagan era–although her experiences with McCarthyism would have given her some preparation for the last. At the endpoint of my recent welfare book, 1935, she was an academic well known in her field but far from notoriety. She was a member, whether she recognized it or not, of a network of women welfare-state builders and a contributor to what Europeans would call a social democratic vision of a welfare state to which we may yet return.

In this talk I mean to fit Charlotte Towle into the history of welfare thought in the US. I am offering an interpretive sketch of the development of welfare thought which could be said to have ended–somewhat tragically–with her Common Human Needs and the political attacks on it. Towle’s timing brought her the misfortune not only to be the target of McCarthyism but also to write her eloquent instructions on how to do public assistance just as our vision of a welfare state grew defensive and cramped. Yet the same timing was also her good fortune because it allowed her to unify and provide a capstone for a rich legacy of welfare thought she inherited.

Animating my thoughts is the question: What might have been had that persecution not targeted her and stifled that tradition? In general it is curiosity about what might have been that stimulated my interest in Towle. History is so often the narrative of the victor, and the explanation of the victory, that we are in constant danger of losing what we can learn from defeated alternatives, paths not taken.

I set out about a decade ago to puzzle out a central contradiction in welfare as we know it today: In our welfare state, the program designed for women–AFDC–is markedly inferior and more stigmatizing than those designed for men; yet this program was designed by women, even by feminists, in the generic meaning of that term. Its designers were also pioneers of social work–such as Julia Lathrop and Grace Abbott, the mothers of Charlotte Towle, so to speak–and as a result I came to learn about and to respect the community of feminist reformers who built the social work profession. In doing so I discovered how loose was the definition of social work at the beginning of this century: for most of these women it was indistinguishable from social reform. For example the women who campaigned for mothers’ “pensions”–the state predecessor to AFDC–in the first decades of this century virtually all called themselves social workers although most of them had neither jobs nor professional training. Well into the 1930s these women used the phrase “social work” to refer to casework, charity and reform politics. Frances Perkins called her work as Secretary of Labor for Franklin Roosevelt “social work.”

The mothers’ pension program was marked by its social work origin. The program arose in response to the sufferings of poor children in particular, as filtered through the experience of the many women engaged in what was then called child saving. By combining cash stipends and casework supervision, aid to single mothers sought to prevent the institutionalizing of children and to preserve mother-child bonds while also raising up the moral and child-raising standards of the poor and the foreign to allegedly “American” standards. The state mothers’-aid programs were under-funded and reached only a minority of needy single mothers but they had never been intended to be universal. On the contrary, mothers’-pension advocates wanted a restricted program, one that would screen applicants carefully for moral promise. This vision arose from their desire to countervail against arguments that public welfare programs would be inherently corrupt and corrupting, and to do so they needed to demonstrate that mothers’ aid could be administered without creating incentives for corruption. So these social workers wanted every recipient to be exemplary and therefore insisted not only on means testing but also on morals testing of applicants.

In this vision of mothers’ aid, the social work reformers expressed two distinct but usually combined streams of thought in Progressive-era reform: moral reform and state responsibility. They were part of a large community of reformers insisting that only government could provide the regulatory and financial power needed to guarantee public safety, health, welfare and morality in a complex commercial/industrial society; they saw regulation of food and drug safety as of a piece with regulation of morality and believed firmly that the state and other authoritative institutions should see to the moral purification of a vice-ridden and cruelty-ridden society whose problems included prostitution, drunkenness, child abuse, wife beating and marital desertion. From these concerns stemmed the conviction that good social work required both economic relief and moral/psychological treatment, without which poverty would become pauperism. Listen to Belle Israels, a member of the social work network, writing in 1908: “Poverty easily drags the poor man down, weakens him physically, diminishes his moral resistance, makes him less valuable as a working force, and frequently leads to my emphasis lack of employment, as at every crisis or industrial depression the mediocre working men and women are the first to be dismissed.” The problem she is discussing is complex, many-layered, and self-perpetuating; being poor can make a person grow poorer still. And “In individual cases it is often difficult to determine if poverty is the result of idleness, or idleness the result of poverty.” They believed that aid to the poor must always be discriminating, so as to prevent it from encouraging laziness, and accompanied by guidance towards rehabilitation or at least maintenance of “good standards” of home life. This notion of social treatment that included moral reform, careful investigation of clients, fear of pauperization and ad hoc recommendations for individual families rendered by trained workers using their best judgment–became, of course, the casework method.

In the early 20th century social reformers began to criticize the emphasis on pauperization, with some success. By the 1920s most trained social workers had reversed the Victorian notion that weak character was the cause of poverty, considering it more likely that poverty and other environmental ills were the primary cause of social maladjustment. But social workers remained committed to treating the individual, even if she had originally been damaged by the environment, even if they were less likely to refer to this damage as pauperization. So this newer vision of casework continued the moral/psychological emphasis of social work.

This perspective was gendered, but in a complex, not a simple way. It was widely shared by men and women alike in the social work community; and it was by no means the unique perspective of all women. These are the complexities of complex identities and social experience, and we can see them by looking briefly at the visions of two other groups campaigning to improve the public welfare in the first third of this century. One such was a network of African American women, brought together in particular by the NACW, founded in the 1890s. I see this network as representing to some degree the welfare perspective of poor women generally, and to some degree an approach uniquely produced by African American culture. The Blacks I discuss have not usually been identified as welfare advocates because the white experience has defined what we usually mean by that concept–public funds for the poor. But African-Americans, still concentrated in the south and in rural communities, had been largely disfranchised by this time, and could not much influence government spending. Black welfare activity, especially before the New Deal, consisted to a great extent of building private institutions. While whites too were doing this, the proportions and scale were entirely different. Black women welfare reformers created schools, old people’s homes, medical services, community centers. Attempting to provide for their people what the white state would not, they even raised private money for public institutions. For example, an Atlanta University study of 1901 found that in at least three southern states (Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia), the private contribution to the Negro “public” schools was greater than that from tax moneys. Black women welfare activists shared the white belief in combining economic with moral help. “Uplift” was, in fact, their central tenet. But the slogan of the NACW was “lifting as we climb;” despite the relative privilege of its mainly middle-class, light-skinned and well-educated club women, these African American women did not feel as separate from or superior to their poor sisters as the white social workers did from the largely immigrant poor they were trying to help and reform. This vision was almost never embodied in any state programs but it could be seen in many forms of working-class mutual benefit organizations.

Equally distinct but working in close collaboration with the white women was a white male network of welfare designers. Its ideas developed mainly from taking in European welfare developments, specifically a new concept–social insurance. The social insurance vision entirely rejected the moral reform stream of social work thought. Its basic principles were: government provision, based on compulsory participation, and automatic (that is, not means- or morals-tested) benefits among covered groups. Indeed, social-insurance programs were not exclusively directed at the poor; one of their selling points was that they benefited all classes. While the social workers focussed on treating poverty so as to prevent pauperism, the social-insurance proponents aimed to prevent poverty itself and to provide all workers and employees with security about the future.

Social insurance advocates planned to achieve this end by aiding workers as soon as there was a loss of earnings, as in the case of workmen’s compensation, or by providing incentives for employers to maintain steady employment and safe working conditions, as for example through the use of tax incentives. They had great confidence that poverty could be prevented. Richard Neustadt, for example, considered the faith that poverty “is ultimately preventable to be a fundamental doctrine of democracy, an axiom of civilization.” But they did not concentrate on perfecting individuals; they devoted little attention to individual character. Their vision was to result in what is today called Social Security.

Gender permeated the outlook and the programs of these three networks. In my book I discussed this gendering in many areas — Here let me rehearse the gendering of their ethical claims as the shortest road to where Charlotte Towle came in.

Social insurance advocates sought to assimilate their reforms to the central liberal political tradition, that of rights. These men, envisaging upper working-class or even middle-class white men as their clients–that is, people they conceived as citizens–thought they should be able to claim public assistance as rights. Frederick Wines spoke of a “natural right” to relief as early as 1883. In 1920 Arthur James Todd found the origins of welfare in The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Tom Paine. “There is no forcing of analogies or misreading of history when I say that modern social-reform movements and social work represent a series of concrete attempts to define and redefine the Rights of Man emphasis in original.” Prefiguring Franklin Roosevelt, Todd lists some new “rights:” to a decent income, to organize for economic protection (unions), to leisure, to education, to recreation, to health (including sanitation, preventive hygiene, protection from impure and adulterated food), to decent habitation, to a childhood “untainted by unnecessary and preventable diseases or degeneracies” (eugenics), and to women’s rights.

Social-insurance advocates liked rights because they wanted above all to distinguish social insurance from charity. They used rational-choice assumptions, appealing to self-interest and mutual advantage. They implicitly denied the potency of altruism as a social motive.

Rights talk offered little of tactical value to black women, who lacked rudimentary political citizenship. While there were militants among these “uplift” women–some challenged Booker T. Washington’s dominance, defied Jim Crow laws, and challenged the racial exclusionism of the white women’s movement–the poverty of most Blacks presented them with urgent cries for help. And their most ambitious projects were dependent on white money. They were primarily oriented inwards, towards African Americans, and their primary ethical argument rested on duty, the obligation to advance the race. The obligation fell on rich and poor alike. For those at the bottom, upward mobility fused personal with racial gain. Nor could elite Blacks evade this necessity: most African Americans were vulnerable to being stigmatized by the behavior of the most wretched Blacks. Thus giving to the poor also united self-interest and altruism. The privilege of the elite minority of Black women who led this movement did not arouse the guilt that some whites experienced. On the contrary, most African Americans interpreted individual success as collective gain. This helps account for the great respect paid to successful businesswomen, their prominent role in welfare work, and the absence of any negative feelings about those who profited personally from insurance or health-care businesses.

The complex position of elite white women, simultaneously privileged and subordinated, was reflected in their ethical arguments. The more radical among them had revived and expanded rights talk in the Progressive era by announcing social rather than individual rights. In her attacks on child labor, for example, Florence Kelley spoke of a “right” to childhood. But the primary commitment of the social work network was to pity and compassion, in the interest of responding to needs. As they extended their program from charity to welfare, asking that the state provide pity and compassion, they argued that needs were a claim on the polity. They suggested that fulfilling human needs was necessary to the social order and therefore a public responsibility; in short, they were politicizing needs.

Casework was itself premised on ascertaining clients’ needs. This is one of the ways in which they saw casework skills as feminine, involving attentiveness, empathy, asking the right questions. Bertha Reynolds came to believe that casework was defined by “perceptiveness regarding needs.” Social-insurance plans, by contrast, required no discretionary ascertainment of need.

Discourse about needs has been criticized because defining someone else’s needs is so open to manipulation. In social work, when “needs” are defined by professional experts, the client’s own expression of need may be silenced, and the client may lose access to defending her claims through the adversary proceedings that adjudicate “rights.” The practice of making family budgets allowed social workers to decide what clients needed; with psychiatric influence, social workers became authorities on what their clients needed spiritually as well. The use of needs talk as a means of control and even domination fit the skills of social work women. Social insurance provided no individualized definition of a client; casework defined a client as multiply needy, not only economically, and this definition gave caseworkers a position of power and authority not easily achieved then by women outside their families. Egalitarian empathy is always difficult to achieve in a casework relation.

For these social workers, distance was created not only by casework theory, not only by their sense of class, religious, and racial/ethnic superiority, but also by their own family situations which rarely called upon them to combine earning and child-raising. Freed by their relatively privileged economic position from the necessities of marriage to a greater degree than was possible for poor women, being single was in many cases the condition that allowed their activism or career. Their singleness might logically have made caseworkers critical of the family-wage norm, but it did not do so. Their experience of singleness fit the class distance they felt from their clients, and their acceptance of the premise that children and women needed breadwinner husbands, that children needed full-time mothers, that women should choose between family and career.

The development of needs talk coincided with the rise of the realm of the “social,” as Hannah Arendt identified it, a realm distinct from the private (as in family or friendship), from the state, but also from the economic. In this realm arose a range of wants that could be classified as needs, from telephones to certain family structures. Arendt, in this respect following a Frankfurt School orientation, saw the social as inevitably oppressive, a space being defined precisely as it was filled with the subtle forms of oppression that so characterize late-capitalist culture–advertising, market research and opinion polls, “pop psych,” state and other coercive intervention into the private.

This critique of needs misses much, owing particularly to the absence of a gender analysis. Since needs talk often involves bringing into public a previously private discourse, such as bodily and psychological matters, it has often been a feminine discourse, constructed by those who take responsibility for the quality of the private. Needs talk was often brought into political debate by women. When women argued for access to public citizenship rights, such as the voting rolls or juries, they often argued from needs–of the poor, of the children, of the city dwellers. Arendt saw the social only as “one-dimensional space wholly under the sway of administration and instrumental reason.” In fact needs discourse has been intensely argumentative. The rhetoric of needs has been mobilized particularly fervently and frequently in welfare activism, in campaigns against child abuse and neglect and changing prescriptions about what children “need;” in pressures to raise the minimum provision for the poor in conformity with new social needs, such as telephones. Needs-talk was sometimes turned introspective, and made subversive, notably by settlement women. One particularly stunning use of needs-talk was Jane Addams’ insistence that settlement work fulfilled needs for the privileged women who did it, needs that she considered at once spiritual and “primordial.” Needs talk is not inherently dominating; it seems rather that needs-, duty- and rights-talk represented different kinds of complex discourse, each containing authoritative and democratic potential.]

The force of gender affected also in the organization of the professional disciplines in which welfare advocates worked. Social insurance was mainly an academic stream of thought and many of its most prominent proponents were academics (Arthur Altmeyer, Wilbur Cohen, John Commons, Richard Ely, Isidore Falk, Abraham Epstein, Charles Henderson, Robert Hunter, John Kingsbury, Paul Raushenbush, Edgar Sydenstricker, and Edwin Witte, to name but a few) who agitated for social insurance primarily through academic writing and publishing.

The sex segregation of social-insurance thinking was not due to women’s poorer academic performance but to their exclusion from the universities. Many of these women had been stellar college students who found themselves without career opportunity upon graduation or even after receiving doctorates. Nearly 1/3 of women earning college degrees between 1868 and 1898 went on to do graduate work; eight times as many women earned Ph.D.s in the 1890s as in the whole history of the US before. Women reformers in the late 19th century had been prominent among those who first envisioned the application of expertise, science, to society. “The work of social science is literally woman’s work,” wrote Franklin Sanborn of the American Social Science Association in 1874; it was the feminine side of political economy. Despite men’s greater achievement of professional status, women had at least an equal commitment to authoritative expertise. They sought professionalization of social work and scientific methods of public administration.

The sexual division of labor among welfare proponents was not only a matter of discrimination, for at issue is not only what the women were kept from doing but what they did do. This sexual division of labor, in fact, affected the structure and content not only of welfare programs but also of the modern social science disciplines, especially sociology. At the turn of the century there was little distinction between sociology and the social-research wing of social work, or between social reform and applied sociology. The same motives that led women into social work were drawing them in large numbers into graduate sociology and economics departments, which were rapidly expanding at this time. The understanding of their professors was that they would do “applied” work, research rather than teaching, and research about contemporary social problems, for institutes, government investigations, and the private sector, but not for universities. It is arguable that the development of the entire modern field of social work and the social survey was shaped by the refusal of the University of Chicago sociology department to hire Edith Abbott or Sophonisba Breckinridge; this refusal then impelled them to build the School of Social Service Administration that dominated social work social research for many decades.

The definition of “applied” research that excluded it from universities has not been stable; today scholarly work that fits that definition is commonplace and respected in social science departments. Moreover, women pioneered in the development of quantitative social scholarship. Prominent in the American Social Science Association, and promoted particularly by Massachusetts statistical officer Carroll Wright, they helped shape censuses and did the first prominent social surveys. When Wright persuaded Congress to fund investigations into urban slum conditions in the 1890s, he turned to the settlement women of Hull House to conduct the Chicago survey. The result, Hull-House Maps and Papers (1895), was the most influential social survey of its time, followed by W.E. B. DuBois‘ The Philadelphia Negro (1899) and Atlanta University Studies (1898-1913), and the Pittsburgh survey (1914), also done mainly by women. Florence Kelley, through her work on this Chicago study, as an Illinois factory inspector, and later in developing projects funded by the Russell Sage Foundation, was one of the definers of modern standards for social research along with Wright and DuBois. Their approach helped create the modern practice of conducting studies that serve as a basis for policy decisions. Their belief in the power of data to persuade was of a piece with their rhetorical preference for the concrete, the specific. Social surveys became so numerous and so popular that doing them was virtually a social movement; at least 2,775 were completed by 1927. By the 1920s the woman-led Children’s Bureau in the DOL was recognized as the federal government’s leader in statistical studies. Its test for applicants required outlining a statistical table from raw data and a plan for investigation of a social problem. The Children’s Bureau was the source of most Depression data on poverty; when better information on unemployment and wage rates was wanted, Secretary of Labor Perkins turned to Clara Beyer of the Children’s Bureau to set up the Bureau of Labor Standards and collect data.

Within the developing field of sociology women’s overrepresentation in this kind of research was such that quantitative research was sex-typed as female. Empirical study of contemporary social problems, such as poverty, crime, and immigration, was increasingly considered a branch of (female) social work while (male) sociological scholarship remained more theoretical and/or qualitative.

The story of the relationship between Hull-House and the University of Chicago Sociology Department may serve to illustrate. Between these two centers of social research there arose close cooperation and division of labor. The first sociology faculty greatly admired Jane Addams, who lectured in University sociology classes often enough that one historian described her as “adjunct professor.” In 1895 the University tried to acquire Hull-House, but was rejected by Addams and Julia Lathrop; they had several reasons for preferring autonomy, despite the value of durable economic support, one of which was the inevitable subordination that would be the settlement’s fate once inside such a male institution as was a university in the 1890s. Accepting Hull-House’s autonomy, University of Chicago sociologists still viewed it as their “laboratory.” These sociologists considered quantitative work “applied” and preferred to subcontract it, so to speak, to lower-status workers–in this case often the Hull-House women, led particularly by pioneer social researcher Florence Kelley. After about 1915 quantitative work at the University of Chicago was de-emphasized altogether as sociologists like W. I. Thomas, Robert Park, and George Herbert Mead developed their influential qualitative methods. (Ironically, W. F. Ogburn, hired at the University of Chicago in 1927, is often credited as the initiator of quantitative sociology.) Nothing illustrates the malleability of gender meanings so well as the transition over the last century from a feminine association with statistical work to today’s language about “hard data” and the masculine domination of the “hard” social sciences.

The fact that women, even elite white women, were so largely excluded from universities does not mean that the men and women of this class disagreed about the proper place of women in society. White women’s relative lack of interest in social insurance resulted from the fact that it was premised on the wage form and would thus exclude most women. The fiction that social insurance was different from relief was in a mutually supportive relation with an older fiction, that women were and ought to be economic dependents of male breadwinners, and that women would therefore be taken care of by men’s insurance. This understanding of the sexual division of labor–wage-earning husbands and full-time housewives–was known in this period as the family wage. (In fact, recent working-class history has demonstrated definitively that few working-class men ever earned enough to support their families single-handedly. Yet as a norm for desirable gender relations and family organization, the family wage was extremely powerful.) But ironically the social work women believed in the family wage just as much as did men; even women who themselves defied it–usually by not marrying men at all–believed it was best for other women.

It is on this issue that we see the greatest race difference. Although Black women reformers also held up breadwinner husbands and non-employed wives as ideal, they did so with many qualifications. Understanding the economic necessity for married women’s employ-ment among their people, they also promoted a culture which valued women’s economic independence from men. This is visible in the priority they gave to organizing day nurseries. In poor urban white neighborhoods the need for child care may have been nearly as great, but virtually no northern white welfare reformers endorsed such programs as long-term or permanent services until the 1930s and 1940s; until then even the most progressive, such as Florence Kelley, opposed them even as temporary solutions, fearing they would encourage the exploitation of women through low-age labor. Furthermore, while Black women descried the effects of the “double day” on poor women and criticized men who failed to support families (Nannie Burroughs wrote, “Black men sing too much `I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby.'”), they also emphasized training women for careers in a way which registered their skepticism about the advisability of counting on men for support. [Elizabeth Ross Haynes wrote with praise in 1922 of “…the hope of an economic independence that will some day enable them Negro women to take their places in the ranks with other working women.'”]

Blind to demographic and employment trends, the white social work network clung to a fear of building women’s economic independence. To be sure, their logic was not unanimous. The more conservative logic believed in women’s domestic destiny and feared “race suicide;” the more progressive emphasized the need to build social respect for domestic labor and feared that, given low wages and terrible working conditions, women’s employment would only result in intensified abuse. But despite these differences, the AFDC program which the social workers designed committed the U.S. to a welfare system that discouraged women’s self-sufficiency–just as European countries like Sweden and France were making the opposite choice by supporting day care, maternity leave, etc.

So all the white reformers, male and female, shared in the family-wage gender system–a useful reminder that gender is not about differences between men and women. But even had reformers recognized the trend toward women’s employment, any approach that derived welfare benefits from employment would have nevertheless discriminated against women and minority men. Only a more radical alternative would have corrected that: something like the Lundeen bill which would have granted unemployment and old-age benefits to any American not living on wages, creating a benefit derived from, say, citizenship. Several members of the social work network, notably Edith Abbott, called for such a universal system. Charlotte Towle may have been influenced by this thinking. Surely she was influenced by the University of Chicago/SSA attempt to retain and regenerate the unity between social work and welfare-state building.

Towle’s personal experiences still need more study. She was a younger member of a women’s network that dated from the preprofessional days of social work, a network that would probably have chosen Jane Addams as their ethical mother. A remarkable group, these women achieved unusually high position for their sex thanks to a set of advantages both inherited and created, advantages that ranged from class and race and education to their willingness to forego marriage and bond, instead, with other women. Most scholars consider this a group that developed its maximum influence in the Progressive era and the 1920s. While the members of this group in government positions peaked during the New Deal, their power was receding by the 1940s. Towle’s cohort (born in the 1890s) was a younger generation that included social workers Beulah Amidon, Grace Coyle, Gordon Hamilton and Jane Hoey, who headed Social Security’s Bureau of Public Assistance when it commissioned Common Human Needs (CHN) in 1944. This younger group differed from their elder sisters in being less feminist, less influenced by the first wave of the women’s-rights movement which had been decreasingly hegemonic since about 1920; and more influenced by psychiatric analysis. These two factors were not unrelated, by the way. The feminism of the older group sometimes, as I have said, encouraged an identification with the sufferings of poor women which attracted passionate women to social work and intensified their courage and commitment, but it sometimes also encouraged a kind of moral certainty that they knew what was good for all women and that their middle-class family standards ought to be universal. Psychiatric social work, by contrast, sometimes served to undercut this kind of certainty and prodded social workers to think critically about their own reactions to clients–whether sympathy or condemnation–even as it sometimes licensed a blindness to the social roots of psychic disturbances. Yet another historical influence on Towle, visible in her book, was New Deal welfare thinking and the radical social work “rank-and-file” movement the Depression and New Deal gave rise to. From supporters of Roosevelt (who constituted the Right wing of the profession), to Harry Hopkins of the FERA who commanded support from the Center, to critics of Roosevelt from the Left like Mary Van Kleeck, Helen Hall and Bertha Reynolds, all were insisting on a vision of social work as empowering rather than policing.

While the impassioned and learned quality of CHN is unique to Towle, the work also represents the fruition of a cross-germination of the separate traditions of welfare thought I have articulated. It was not until last week, while preparing today’s talk, long after arguing that rights, duties and needs marked out three different traditions, that I came across Towle’s remark that public assistance should be administered with reference “to right, to need, and to obligation.” It is in her attempt to unite these ethical principles that Towle’s little book is most impressive to the welfare historian. In it she argued that society had an obligation to render assistance to the needy, that individuals had held such social rights to assistance for centuries, and that well-given assistance involved discovering individual needs and, when possible, helping clients to articulate these needs.

During the New Deal the proponents of rights–the social insurance group–and the proponents of needs–the social workers–had worked together by creating a division of labor, a division in which increasing male control was marginalizing social workers by the late 1930s. Despite her apparent lack of interest in male supremacy and female subordination as fundamental structures–apparent throughout this book, anyway–Towle was arguing to re-center the female social work approach. The social insurance advocates despised the central social work principle, casework, because it ran directly against the automaticity of the insurance principle they liked to emulate. Individualization was the essence of casework: its guiding principle was “to treat unequal things unequally.” Often called “differential casework,” its very premise was anti-bureaucratic, in the pure sense of bureaucracy, since it insisted on the worker’s discretion. By contrast, the deindividualization of the social insurance approach was anathema to social workers. Towle pointed out to public assistance workers that clients might not be able to make use of non-individualized help because their feelings may interfere. The casework tradition in the hands of Towle and her allies was a way of acknowledging the manifold injuries of poverty and inequality, injuries to the spirit and the psyche as well as to the body. Moreover, in her discussion about the necessity and techniques of supervision, she argued that the feelings of the worker could likewise subvert the helping process.

The recognition of feelings in a helping relationship no longer expressed fear of inducing dependency, as it had in the Progressive era. Towle turned pauperization theory on its head. Far from worrying that too much help would weaken will power and the work ethic, she argued rather that without a welfare state a man “…is doomed to continue in the psychological state of childhood, anxiously dependent … insecure, and unfree to move courageously …” Towle preferred the language of interdependence and “self-dependence” to the more ideological notion of independence. She specifically criticized the suspiciousness of malingering and fraud that was not just a hallmark but even the core of early casework; she recommended, instead, the use of psychiatric analysis and sensibilities to ameliorate whatever guilt or stigma welfare clients felt. She offered a psychiatric view that hostility to the caseworker was often “normal human behavior” which, no matter how troublesome, probably had a rational foundation. She argued on psychiatric grounds that “It is essential that the applicant feel that in our eyes he is eligible until proved ineligible.” It represented, more fully than any previous approach, what one might call a welfare-state, egalitarian casework.

Towle’s plea for “sound individualization in a program based on legal right” called together the male and female traditions. Whatever political support she may have felt for a Harry Hopkins or Lundeen vision of a universal cash entitlement, without screening or casework, she was not arguing for it in CHN. In her emphasis on objectivity and training, she was instead continuing Grace Abbott’s kind of campaign to prove that public casework could be as thorough and professional as private. The first criticisms of CHN blamed it not for socialism but for affirming too much caseworker discretion and criticizing the rigidity of most agencies’ rules.

While defending so compellingly the archetypically female professional technique, casework, Towle was nevertheless suppressing the cries of female clients. Her use of “man” to represent humanity, while a standard 1940s practice, seems the more jarring today in combination with her resolute lack of interest in the conditions for women’s over-representation as clients of social workers, and the fact that the agency which hired her to write CHN was mainly administering a program for mothers. Like so many of the “feminine mystique” experts of the period, Towle treated family formation and “adjustment” as ipso facto evidence of maturity. We need more scholarship aimed at understanding why social workers and other professional women of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s could be so brave and progressive about so many issues and so yet closed-minded about gendered forms of domination–despite the experiences of their own lives. But we must remember the complexities in the lives of these women, living long after the Progressive era community of elite women reformers had aged without adequate rejuvenation. In my own studies I have seen these poignant contradictions repeatedly: the elite 19th-century and Progressive-era social workers were so often oblivious to class and race domination yet so sensitive to the oppression of women; the New Deal social workers empathized with the poor and the working class but not with women.

Towle’s silences about race are equally disturbing. The Social Security Act was designed with white people in mind and then amended so as to explicitly excluded the vast majority of people of color; yet even as CHN was being written the public assistance programs were meeting the disproportionately greater “needs” of people of color–needs constructed, of course, out of discrimination, and discrimination not entirely different at root from that practiced by the white welfare networks. Also as CHN was being written, minority welfare recipients were facing overwhelmingly white caseworkers, and state and county welfare agencies from Mississippi to Montana had been given great autonomy in discriminatory determinination of eligibility–yet Towle was calling for even greater discretion for caseworkers. And her gender and racial blindness joined in her failure to consider economic independence as a goal for women, and one that social workers could help them achieve.

Nevertheless, a person’s enemies are often an accurate index of their values, and Towle certainly had the right enemies. McCarthyism was a powerful force not only against freedom of speech and inquiry but also against the development of our welfare state. And had that welfare state continued to expand, as its New Deal originators had intended, it would have done a great deal despite its gendered and racial biases to expand security and opportunity for people of color and white women, and to promote the civil rights and feminist movements which then challenged those biases. Towle’s importance to me was in attempting to use relatively new psychiatric understandings to create not just a comfortable but even a liberatory vision of a welfare state.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Gordon, L. (1996). Fitting Charlotte Towle into the history of welfare thought in the US. Retrieved [date accessed] from /people/towle-charlotte-fitting-her-into-the-history-of-welfare-thought-in-the-u-s/.

3 responses to “Towle, Charlotte: A Perspective”

  1. I was looking for something about Charlotte Towle whose fascinating articles I have been reading. I appreciate this – but would like more. thanks, Hera

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