Widowed Mother's Fund Association

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Widowed Mother's Fund Association

United States 1909


In the early twentieth century, thousands of widowed and abandoned mothers became trapped in a horrifying catch-22 situation: to feed their families in an age when charities were over-burdened and the government provided no relief for destitute children, they had no choice but to work outside the home (almost invariably in jobs that were at best subsistence level), yet by working outside their homes they risked having their children taken by the state and placed in orphanages. In 1909 a group comprising mainly wealthy Jewish women formed the Widowed Mother's Fund Association specifically to help fatherless families in New York City remain together. The association and its founders were instrumental in obtaining the first government funding for dependant children in peacetime.


  • 1889: Flooding in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, kills thousands.
  • 1893: Wall Street stock prices plummet on 5 May, precipitating a market collapse on 27 June. In the wake of this debacle, some 600 banks and 15,000 other businesses fail. The nationwide depression will last for four more years.
  • 1898: Bayer introduces a cough suppressant, derived from opium. Its brand name: Heroin.
  • 1902: The Times Literary Supplement, a weekly review of literature and scholarship, begins publication in London.
  • 1905: Russian Revolution of 1905. Following the "bloody Sunday" riots before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in January, revolution spreads throughout Russia, in some places spurred on by newly formed workers' councils, or soviets. Among the most memorable incidents of the revolt is the mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin. Suppressed by the czar, the revolution brings an end to liberal reforms, and thus sets the stage for the larger revolution of 1917.
  • 1909: Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson reach the North Pole.
  • 1909: Founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) by W. E. B. Du Bois and a number of other prominent black and white intellectuals in New York City.
  • 1909: William Cadbury's Labour in Portuguese West Africa draws attention to conditions of slavery in Sã o Toméand Principe.
  • 1911: Revolution in Mexico, begun the year before, continues with the replacement of the corrupt Porfirio Diaz, president since 1877, by Francisco Madero.
  • 1915: A German submarine sinks the Lusitania, killing 1,195, including 128 U.S. citizens. Theretofore, many Americans had been sympathetic toward Germany, but the incident begins to turn the tide of U.S. sentiment toward the Allies.
  • 1919: Formation of the Third International (Comintern), whereby the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.

Event and Its Context

Hannah Bachman Einstein, a first generation American, was the wife and the daughter of two of the wealthiest German-Jewish businessmen in New York City, but her dedication to the plight of indigent families was not the least bit superficial. Active in charitable outreach since childhood, she had already headed numerous Jewish women's benevolent societies by the time she became the first woman to serve on the board of United Hebrew Charities (UHC), one of the best funded and efficiently run philanthropic societies in the world. Eager to understand fully the problems of the desperate women who filled her office every day, she undertook extensive field research and embarked on what was (for a middle-aged, turn-of-the-century, wealthy Ashkenazi society matron) considered an eccentric act by undertaking formal sociology training at Columbia University.

As Russian pogroms and European anti-Semitism escalated, the flood of penniless Jewish immigrants filing through Ellis Island increased exponentially. Fred Baur, superintendent of the Department of Charities for the City of New York at this time, estimated that impoverished Jewish families, who had previously accounted for only 10 percent of the handouts from Manhattan charities, now received 60 percent of charitable contributions, and the number was rising. As more families lost their breadwinners to death, injury, or desertion, the number of Jewish mothers who were unable to care for their children multiplied, and Einstein herself estimated that she encountered at least 300 children in danger of being placed in orphanages every week.

The Hebrew Orphan Asylum, built in 1855 when the entire Jewish population of New York was only 15,000, was far beyond capacity, as were most of the other private and public orphanages in the city. In most cases, the children housed at the orphanages had at least one living parent but had been given up voluntarily or else forcibly removed from their homes because of their families' inability to provide for them. Most orphanages were completely privately funded and in 1909 many still, in a page from Dickens, required older children to work in factories and sweatshops to pay their own upkeep.

UHC provided pensions to hundreds of widowed and abandoned wives so that they could avoid having their children committed. UHC administered more than $100,000 per year in aid, but the explosion in Jewish immigration finally exhausted even their resources. They were forced to remove the names of many pensioners from their rolls beginning in 1908. The result was the separation of yet more Jewish families.

Although she never stated the reason for her beliefs, Hannah Einstein did not feel that UHC was doing all within its power to meet the crisis. On Wednesday, 28 April 1909, she resigned the vice presidency of the organization and in an interview with The New York Times announced her intention to form a society dedicated solely to helping widowed mothers "in one way or another . . . [to] try to get them work, paying their rent for them until we can help them in better ways."

The first meeting of the society was held at Einstein's home on Thursday, 13 May 1909. The agenda was a discussion of the association's missions and how they would be achieved. The Widowed Mother's Fund Association (WMFA) was incorporated that summer by Supreme Court Justice Blanchard with Einstein as president and Mrs. Daniel Guggenheim (from the millionaire mining family), Mrs. Randolph Guggenheimer, Annette Kohn, Olivia Leventritt, Mrs. Taylor Phillips, and Mrs. Jefferson Seligman as its first board of directors. The same month, Einstein began a major appeal to charities, philanthropists, and private citizens to raise the $100,000 she felt was needed to carry out the WMFA's work.

Within the first nine months, the WMFA received gifts ranging from $500 to $2,500 from wealthy Jewish families in New York City and gained 5,000 members who each paid $1 per year in dues. The association established an office where widowed mothers, who did not have to be Jewish (though most who called on this charity were), could come for assistance. Having evidently separated amicably, Einstein and the UHC soon operated jointly so as to share information and avoid duplicate efforts. In its first year of existence, the organization had more than 500 pensioners.

Members of the board and the many female volunteers of the WMFA went out into the community to find employment opportunities, organize baby-sitting services, and help in other ways to attain the WMFA's aims. Einstein realized that the charity she formed would never be large enough to reach all who needed assistance. Her decades of observation and education convinced her that government funding was the only real hope for indigent families, and she became one of the new century's most impressive and effective lobbyists.

Admirable as her cause was by modern standards, Einstein met fierce opposition. Ironically, her most vocal opponents were the very orphanages and relief agencies whose overburdening she had tried to alleviate. The early twentieth century was a time of sharp division and heated debate between those who believed the government should assist the poor and those who believed that only private charities should fill this role. Many charities indignantly rejected the idea of "outdoor" help from public funds. A 1908 conference that met to debate government support of indigent children resulted in argument and deadlock as the sides refused to compromise or even enter rational dialogue.

Sociologist Frank Dekker Watson was a leader of the pro-government welfare faction and condemned charities for helping struggling mothers, arguing that until charities stopped taking the state slack government would never provide as they should. On the other extreme was Otis Bannard, head of New York's Charity Organization Society, who cited government pensions as tantamount to socialism and the first step on a slippery slope to anarchy. Still others in both camps echoed the sentiments of influential humanitarian Josephine Howell (herself a widowed mother during the Civil War) and argued that aid for widows was admirable but that aid for deserted wives, even mothers, would, like legalized abortion, encourage wanton immorality. Einstein had to fight a war on several fronts.

Writer Sophie Irene Loeb became Einstein's staunchest ally. Though Jewish, Loeb had little else in common with Einstein: Russian-born, divorced, and working class in background, she supported herself as a columnist for the New York Evening World and used her editorials to personalize the plights of separated families and bring them to a mass audience. When Einstein was appointed chair of the State Commission on Relief for Widowed Mothers, Loeb undertook extensive research on her behalf, initially in New York City and later throughout the United States and Europe, to investigate government and private welfare organizations. She returned more convinced than ever of the need for and viability of state-funded "widow's pensions." Her detailed reports and World editorials won popular support for the Child Welfare Law of 1915. This act was the first state-funded support for underprivileged children other than those of veterans killed in war. Though it still did not provide support for their mothers, the $100,000 it allotted for needy children allowed the dollars of the Widowed Mothers' Fund and other charities to go much further.

Loeb became, prior to women's suffrage, one of the most powerful women officials in New York. She used her position as president of the New York City Child Welfare Board to increase city funding for indigent families to $4.5 million per year by 1922. The WMFA, relieved somewhat of having to meet the most base needs of those who came to it for help, was able to change its focus. Einstein's new aim was to allow single mothers to remain at home as full-time homemakers, for "to nurture the family requires a commitment of every hour . . . but achieves the ultimate social good."

Einstein and Loeb continued to work together and separately in national lobbies to improve and expand pensions. By 1929, the year both women died, only four states had not passed legislation for mothers' pensions. Many states had extended coverage to include the families of disabled parents, motherless families, or indigent childless women (though most included strict clauses that disallowed women deemed of low moral character from receiving full benefits). The WMFA was ultimately reabsorbed into the United Jewish Charities as government welfare and the widespread entry of women into the professions eradicated much of its need. Even so, the WMFA was a benchmark in the private management of social neglect and a springboard to legislation that saved thousands of families from separation.

Key Players

Einstein, Hannah Bachman (1862-1929): A mother of two who was married at 19 to a very successful wool merchant, Einstein was one of the founders of the Reform synagogue Temple Emanu-El long before joining United Hebrew Charities (UHC). Her study of criminology and sociology convinced her that poverty and broken homes were the twin roots of social evil and she dedicated her life to their eradication. She held many influential public and private offices in her life, including presidency of the New York State Child Welfare Boards, but she was proudest of the Widowed Mother's Fund Association and remained its president until her death.

Loeb, Sophie Irene (1876-1929): Born in Rovno, Russia, Loeb was herself reared as a fatherless child in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Already a career writer when she met Hannah Einstein in 1909, she wrote a book in 1920 titled Everyman's Child, part autobiography and part social credo, in which she detailed her fight for child welfare legislation. Loeb served on several boards, including the National Institute of Social Sciences, but her main work was as an independent lobbyist for children and, later in her life, as an advocate of Zionism.



Chambers, Clarke A. "Toward a Redefinition of Welfare History." Journal of American History 73 (September 1986): 407-433.

Gordon, Linda. "Social Insurance and Public Assistance: the Influence of Gender in Welfare Thought in the United States from 1890-1935." American Historical Review 97 (February 1992): 19-54.

"Hebrew Charities Drop Old Pensioners." New York Times, 3May 1909, p. 3, col. 2.

"Helping Widowed Mothers." New York Times, 18 January1910, p. 18, col. 1.

"Needs $100,000 For Charity: Widowed Mothers' Fund Association Sends Out a Call for Help." New York Times, 26 July 1909, p. 4, col. 4.

"Widowed Mothers Fund Incorporated." New York Times, 8July 1909, p. 16, col. 5.


Olasky, Marvin. "Excitement of a New Century." Olasky.com Archives [cited 8 October 2002]. http:// www.olasky.com/Archives/toac/08%20 (Word5).pdf .

Additional Resources


Brody, Seymour. "Hannah Bachman Einstein: Leader in Social Welfare and Jewish Philnthropy" [sic]. Jewish Heroes and Heroines in America, 1900 to World War II, A Judaica Collection Exhibit. Florida Atlantic University Libraries [cited 8 October 2002]. <http://www.fau.edu/library/bro49.htm>.

—Jonathan Darby