Section 3: Mothers’ Pensions

In 1915, the state legislature of North Dakota passed a bill titled Mothers’ Pensions.  It was typical of the Progressive Era law that was already in effect in other states.  Though North Dakota was not among the first states to enact this law (Illinois was the first in 1911), North Dakota’s law was among the more generous of these laws.

The law was written to protect the home and family when no adult male was present.  The stated purpose was to help children “grow into useful citizens.”  Ideally, the woman would be a widow, but some “abandoned” (divorced) women and unmarried mothers also received pensions.   The idea was that if a woman had young children, she should be at home to take care of them; she should not have to work outside the home to support the children. 

The law stated that every woman would receive an allowance of “not more than fifteen dollars a month” for each child in her home under the age of 14.  The allowance was to be determined by the court of the county where the woman lived.  The court would not award a pension to a woman who had sufficient means of support from another source.  The mother had to be “a proper person morally, physically and mentally for the bringing up of her children.”   If the court found that a woman used her allowance badly, a judge could make the allowance in the form of food, clothing, and fuel, rather than cash. 

A woman had to apply in writing to a county court for a pension.  The county commission had a right to protest any individual woman’s petition by stating that the woman did not qualify as a fit mother or that her children were older than she stated. 

Under this law, a woman with four young children could receive a total of $60 a month (the equivalent of $1314.13 in 2011.) This amount would not allow her to live luxuriously, but was enough to keep her children fed and sheltered in a modest home.  It was also enough to keep the family off poor relief.  Poor relief was considered shameful.  The state also wanted to prevent widows with children from going to the county poor farm where the children would be exposed to bad influences and might not grow up to become good citizens. 

North Dakota’s law provided more help than many other states.  In New York, the maximum payment to a woman with three children was $18 per month in 1919.   Many states made mothers’ pensions available only to widowed women.  North Dakota’s law did not specify that the woman had to be a widow, only that there was no man supporting the children.  However, many North Dakotans preferred to think of the law as supporting women, who through no fault of their own, had to ask for government support. These people generally referred to the law as Widows’ Pensions. 

Cass County commissioners challenged the law when a Casselton woman with five children applied for a pension.  The county commissioners argued that judges, who were responsible for determining the amount of payment to a mother, had been given a judicial power that exceeded the powers of judges as laid out in the state constitution.  Cass County took the case to court and lost the case at the county court.  The commissioners appealed the case to the state Supreme Court and again lost their case.  The commission finally granted the woman’s request for a pension in February, 1917. 

Attorneys complained to the courts that many widows accepted a pension and also found work outside the home.  The state’s attorney in Dunn County complained of a woman who made a good salary and received a mothers’ pension.  His complaint was that the woman wanted all of her children to go to high school and perhaps college.  She did not let her older children work because she wanted them to attend school. Other counties complained that there was no system in place to review a woman’s situation from year to year to make sure that she still qualified for a pension.  Though county commissioners around the state found many reasons to distrust this law, it remained in effect until it was replaced by federal law in the 1930s.  

Why is this important?This law recognized the importance of a woman’s social, economic, and civic roles in raising her children.  The law also asserted the importance of keeping a family together when circumstances might have broken the family apart.  The Mothers’ Pension law indicated that the state had an interest in helping families raise responsible, productive citizens. 

Mothers’ Pension laws fundamentally changed the relationship between women and the government.  Mothers were identified as deserving of state support when they had no other means of support.  No shame was attached to women who received a Mothers’ Pension.

The law recognized that women who worked outside the home generally made very little money.  Women without a high school education made about one-third as much money as men made.  If a woman was suddenly widowed and her husband had not provided for her with savings and insurance, she needed another source of support. 

When the law functioned at its very best, it protected women from having to leave home to find work when their children were small.  The law also prevented mothers from sending their children to work at a young age.  However, there were a few women who attempted to take more money than they deserved under this law.  For more than 15 years, North Dakotans kept up a lively debate about the value of Mothers’ Pensions and the state’s role in preventing and alleviating poverty.