Child Abuse, Gender, and the Myth of Family Independence: Thoughts on the History of Family Violence and Its Social Control 1880-1920


Child abuse was “discovered” in the United States about 110 years ago. Of course, cruel treatment of children had existed previously and it had even been dealt with by the application of community sanctions against parents. Not until the 1870’s, however, was the crime defined as a widespread social problem and responded to by the creation of private groups such as the Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCCs). So rapid was the spread of concern that by 1880 there were already thirty-three such societies in the United States and fifteen in other countries.

The following remarks come from a study of the practice of one such agency, the Massachusetts SPCC, established in 1878, and two other Boston child welfare agencies that also handled “family violence” cases, the Boston Children’s Service Association and the Judge Baker Guidance Center. For our research we took a random sample of cases from 1880 to 1960. In this discussion, however, I will be focusing particularly on the experience of the Massachusetts SPCC (MSPCC) and its clients in the first fifty years of its existence, up to about 1930. The reader should be aware in evaluating these remarks that the MSPCC during this period was an upper-class, Protestant charity while its clientele were predominantly poor, immigrant Catholics.

I want to focus on two themes. The first is the question of state or professional intervention into the family and specifically, some of the ways in which this “intervention” has been conceptualized. The second theme is the way in which gender, not only within the family but also within the entire social division of labor, affects the problem of child abuse and how assumptions about gender have inhered in social work policies towards child abuse.

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