Wives Without Husbands: Marriage, Desertion, and Welfare in New York, 1900 – 1935, by Anna R. Igra , is a scholarly history of the Jewish anti-desertion movement and its significant role in shaping American social welfare programs. In the early 20th century, Jewish organizations developed the National Desertion Bureau, (NDR) to help deserted destitute Jewish mothers and their children. “Deserted women” were women whose husbands did not financially support them and who applied for public assistance from a public or private welfare agency. The emphasis in the Jewish community and the NDR was to ensure that Jewish families were seen as “respectable” in the eyes of the larger community and that meant making sure that men were the breadwinners of their families. The socialist Jewish newspaper, the Forward regularly presented the “Gallery of Missing Men” photos in an effort to embarrass husbands to return to their families and financially support them. The problem was that this policy often didn’t work. Husbands who deserted their families rarely returned to their families and women became more vulnerable to mean spirited husbands who manipulated the NDR system to prevent their wives from getting any financial help. And yet, the policy of the NDR became the fundamental approach of American social welfare policy until the Family Support Act of 1988, when single mothers getting public assistance were phased into work programs and held responsible for their own financial support.
For social welfare policy pundits and historians of the Jewish family, Wives Without Husbands: Marriage, Desertion, and Welfare in New York, 1900 – 1935, will be fascinating. For the average reader, the degree of detail will often be difficult to wade through.
Anna R. Igra is an associate professor of history and director of the Women and Gender studies Program at Carleton College. Bibl., illus., index, notes, tables.