PANEL: The Law of Domestic Relations, Citizenship, and the State
Saturday, October 24, 1:45-3:15
Chair: Nancy Cott, Department of History, Yale University
Making Adoption Modern: The Child Welfare League of America and the Standardization of Kinship Design, 1915-1960
Ellen Herman, History Department, University of Oregon
The growth of professional authority to "make-up" families is one of the most distinctively modern things about modern child adoption. Child exchange is an ancient and cross-cultural practice, but only in the 20th-century has it emerged as an enterprise in which professional helpers claim substantial authority to arrange family bonds outside the logic of blood. In 1917, Minnesota enacted the first statute mandating that children's adoptability and prospective parents' suitability be professionally investigated before adoptions were legally approved. A flood of similar state laws followed. The utopian goal of such measures was an architecture of belonging so perfectly seamless and transparently natural that no trace of the intricate labor process that turns strangers into kin appeared in the final product.
Rather than approaching adoption as a window onto the sentimentalization of childhood, the transformation of motherhood and fatherhood, or the changing interior landscape of emotional life, I consider adoption as an episode in the history of social expertise and public policy. Why and how did adoption professionals initially establish their legitimacy? Were their efforts to make up families in a highly regulated and uniform fashion successful? How were their very public acts of kinship creation reconciled with the assumptions that familial love was private and therefore deservedly distant from the reach of state power?
This paper will concentrate on the campaign to standardize adoption agency practice and legal procedure, let by the Child Welfare League of America. Beginning in 1915, the CWLA embarked on a decades-long project of rationalizing family formation that peaked during the late 1910s, the late 1930s, and the late 1950s. I hope to briefly illustrate both the remarkable progress of standardization and the serious obstacles that prevented a professional legal monopoly over adoption from ever being realized.
The CWLA used standards to repudiate the terms of commodity exchange and champion the morality and efficacy of an adoption process administered bureaucratically by scientific professionals. Enhancing the legal authority of state-certified experts was the only credible alternative to cruel exploitation by commercial baby brokers. The expanding, formal machinery of adoption regulation rested on professional promises to elevate love over labor, belonging over money, public safeguards over private profit, and children's emotional welfare over consumer preferences. Crude market interests contradicted the core rationale of modern adoption: children's "best interests." Since 1851, when Massachusetts lawmakers first declared that every adoption must be "fit and proper," adoption was increasingly accompanied by a transcendent conception of child welfare. Only disinterested professionals backed by caretaker governments could withstand the powerful calculus of commerce and insure that adoption would actually be good for children and society at large.
This was the official story. In practice, standardization was an uneven process, advancing in some states and locations more rapidly than in others. Overall, its victories were more rhetorical than real before 1940. Why? First, many birth parents, adopters, non-professional child-placers, and judges refused to concede that special expertise was required to create families or protect children. Second, kinship regulation was at odds with the values of an expanding consumer culture that cherished choices in children, as in everything else.
Comment: Nancy Cott, Department of History, Yale University
esentation, as bearing rights.
The sources of this paper include newspaper accounts, legal cases, and memoirs of notable attorneys, but also critically-examined records of claims agents working for railroad, streetcar, and subway companies. Using these materials, the paper revises our understanding of the history of "ambulance chasing" by situating the practice of tort law outside questions of professional ethics and examining its deeper social and cultural significance.
Progressive Legal Outreach and the Contact
of Legal Cultures in New York City, 1896-1925: The Case of the New York
Legal Aid Society
Derek Krissoff, Department of History, SUNY Buffalo
Leaders of New York's German community joined with concerned members of the local legal establishment to found the New York Legal Aid Society late in the nineteenth century. Then, as now, Legal Aid was designed to provide the poor with legal representation, but in the first three decades of its existence the Society had a related, and intriguing, agenda; it sought to lure recent arrivals to the United States into the legal mainstream. Legal Aid operatives acknowledged that alternative modes of legal and quasi-legal thought and practice -- many of them rooted in extralegal forums for dispute resolution -- flourished in ethnic New York. By encouraging newcomers to consult Legal Aid when they became embroiled in conflicts, the Society hoped to reign in this intellectual and institutional sprawl. Immigrants would, it was hoped, begin to conceive of themselves as formally "legal" actors oriented around the courts.
And yet Legal Aid was not simply an imperialist venture intent on reconfiguring outsiders' beliefs about social order. Practical concerns kept the vast majority of cases out of court, and in lieu of litigation the Society's lawyers developed a method of dispute resolution which consisted of calling both parties together, conducting an "impartial" investigation of the facts, and hammering out a solution. The system of arbitration Legal Aid embraced was not adversarial; in this respect it more closely resembled rabbinical courts, mutual aid societies, and boards of conciliation developed in the garment industry than it did the system of civil courts. It therefore seems fair to describe the relationship between Legal Aid and the immigrant community as one in which influence and power flowed in both directions. I conclude by suggesting that the New York Legal Aid Society was one of severable permeable points of contact between Progressive-era cultures of dispute resolution, and that through the study of these forums historians might construct new models to explain legal change during this period.
Northern Urban Black Lawyering in the
Early to Middle Twentieth Century: Raymond Pace Alexander's Self-Fashioning
Kenneth Mack, Department of History, Princeton University
This paper is a portion of a larger study of the professionalization of Northern, urban black lawyers in the early to middle part of the twentieth century. The larger study analyzes black lawyers' oft-stated vision of their professional mission -- civil rights advocacy -- and its relation to the quotidian world of law practice in which they found themselves, focusing on Raymond and Sadie Alexander, a husband-and-wife team of black lawyers who practiced in Philadelphia.
Civil rights was not a self-evident concept for early to mid-twentieth- century black lawyers, but rather was an idea that was given substance by these lawyers' law practices and professional activities. In the 1920s black lawyers began to solicit a regular clientele among the growing urban African-American populations in cities like Philadelphia, and by the 1930s had organized themselves into local and national bar associations and had gained accreditation for the largest source of black lawyers, Howard Law School. By the first decade after World War II, a number of black civil rights attorneys, including Charles Houston, Raymond Alexander and Thurgood Marshall, had become influential figures in postwar liberal politics.
The paper will focus on the early decades of Raymond Alexander's law practice in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, and his initial conception of his role in the legal profession and in Philadelphia's black community. Using Alexander's autobiographical writings, magazine articles and materials from his early cases, this paper will analyze Alexander's self-conception as a lawyer in the period, the roots of that conception in the social conditions of an early twentieth-century urban black lawyer, and how and why that conception changed over the course of the first several decades of his law practice.
Comment: Robert W. Gordon, Yale Law School