Wives With­out Hus­bands: Mar­riage, Deser­tion, and Wel­fare in New York 1900 – 1935

Anna R. Igra
  • Review
By – April 2, 2012

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.

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions