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Deceit, Deservingness, and Destitution: Able-Bodied Widows and the New Poor Law

Muller, N Deceit, Deservingness, and Destitution: Able-Bodied Widows and the New Poor Law. Journal of Victorian Culture. ISSN 1355-5502 (Accepted)

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Abstract

The death of a husband had adverse economic effects for the majority of Victorian women, but for working-class mothers the threat of destitution was an almost inevitable feature of widowhood. Widows, with some restrictions, were entitled to outdoor relief under the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), and they comprised the largest group of adult paupers outside of the workhouse well into the early twentieth century, outnumbered only and always by their children. Able-bodied widows therefore presented crucial opportunities for poor law officials in the quest to minimise outdoor relief and make significant reductions in welfare spending. Focusing particularly on the 1830s, 1840s, and 1870s (the first decade of the so-called crusade against out-relief), this article examines the competing discourses of deservingness and deception that dominated the representations and treatment of able-bodied widows in poor law legislation, orders, reports, and parliamentary debates. An uneasy combination of sympathy and suspicion shaped officials’ treatment of these women, rendering them ambiguous figures in the dominant dichotomy of the deserving and undeserving poor, potential drains on the economic prosperity of the state, threats to the nuclear family, and, by extension, a danger to the nation’s moral core. These discourses, I suggest, reflect a wider ideological unease with and attempts to mitigate and police the widow’s exceptional social status in Victorian Britain as a woman with sexual experience, potential economic independence, yet no male guardian.

Item Type: Article
Uncontrolled Keywords: 2002 Cultural Studies, 2005 Literary Studies, 2103 Historical Studies
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
H Social Sciences > HQ The family. Marriage. Woman
Divisions: Humanities & Social Science
Publisher: Oxford University Press (OUP)
Date Deposited: 13 Oct 2020 10:11
Last Modified: 13 Oct 2020 10:11
URI: https://researchonline.ljmu.ac.uk/id/eprint/13834

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