Passage of NY widows' pension bill advocated by Hannah Bachman Einstein
On April 7, 1915, New York's Governor Charles S. Whitman signed the Widowed Mothers Pension Act into law. The new statute, which provided state-funded pensions to qualifying women so that they could care for their children at home, was largely the result of the efforts of communal activist and reformer Hannah Bachman Einstein.
Born in 1862, Einstein grew up within New York City's Temple Emanu-El, a German Reform congregation. Both her parents and the Reform tradition in which she was raised emphasized social justice. As an adult, Einstein remained active in the Temple, and in 1897, she became president of the sisterhood, a position she held for twenty-five years.
One of Einstein's activities as sisterhood president was visiting the homes of recent immigrants. As a result of these visits, she became interested in the problems of widowed mothers, many of whom could not support themselves or their children because working would mean leaving young children at home alone.
During this time, Einstein was active in several charitable causes. She served as Chairman of the Committee on Philanthropy of the New York Council of Jewish Women, and as President of the New York Federation of Sisterhoods. In a move that recognized her commitment to social welfare and women's changing public roles, the New York United Hebrew Charities appointed her the first woman on its board, of which she eventually became Vice President. When that organization abandoned its program of aid to widowed mothers in 1909, Einstein resigned her position to create the Widowed Mothers' Fund Committee. She hoped to raise money to replace the United Hebrew Charities pensions so that mothers would not have to be separated from their children. Two hundred women attended the new Fund's first meeting.
Despite the success of her Committee, Einstein's growing conviction that the problems of widowed mothers could never be solved by private charity alone drew her into work beyond the Jewish community. Only government action, she decided, could alleviate the problems of the poor. Joining with other activists, Einstein lobbied the New York State legislature for widowed mothers' pensions, which would enable widowed women to care for their children without working outside the home. In 1913, she was appointed chair of the state committee to investigate the issue. Her committee wrote what became the Widowed Mothers Pension Act of 1915.
The Act created a system of local Child Welfare Boards, which would evaluate applicants for the pensions. By October, the New York City Board, which included Einstein, had received applications from over 3,000 women and requested a budget of $519,000. Yet by the following January, the City had appropriated only $100,000, and many children remained in institutions rather than with their mothers. The State Commission urged the legislature to amend the law to make it more effective. At the same time, Einstein went back to work raising money – this time for the estimated 80% of widows ineligible for the state pensions because their husbands were not citizens.
Despite these early obstacles, the Pension Act can be considered a success. It became a national model; by 1920, nearly every state had enacted similar legislation. It was also a classic example of women's work in this era; as women were becoming increasingly involved in political life under the rubric of "social housekeeping," their public efforts tended to focus on the welfare of women and children, long the type of issues considered to be in women's domain. Thus women like Einstein found their entry into public life eased by their focus on topics traditionally within women's sphere. In tackling these gender-specific issues, they came to have lasting impact on the American social welfare system.
In the wake of her committee's success, Einstein remained heavily involved in social welfare work. She became president of the New York State Association of Child Welfare Boards and helped found the National Union of Public Child Welfare Officers. Einstein died in New York City in 1929.
To learn more about Hannah Bachman Einstein, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 367-368; Jewish Virtual Library, www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/heinstein.html; New York Times, May 2, 1895, May 3, 1909, April 8 1915, May 21, 1915, October 6, 1915, January 10, 1916.