"Horses’ Rights for Women!": Benjamin Barr Lindsey and the Paternalist Language of Legal Maternalism

Robin Henry, Wichita State University

During a 1908 meeting at the Juvenile Court of Denver, Benjamin Barr Lindsey, the nationally famous advocate of juvenile justice, listened to a proposal for a mothers’ compensation law. While this discussion did not immediately result in Colorado adopting the first such law in the United States, for Lindsey, it focused him on a path to try to improve women’s economic security for the rest of his career. In his courtroom, Lindsey often saw the realities of women’s lives; that they didn’t always include a reliable, breadwinning husband to provide an economically stable family life. He also saw that a woman’s ability to care for herself directly corresponded with her ability to provide for her children. If these economic factors became unbalanced, it meant that the family, and most frequently the women and children, became vulnerable. Lindsey believed that providing an economic buffer between a mother and her economic ruin would not only save her, but would save her children. In this paper I focus less on Lindsey as legal champion of the marginalized, and more on the rhetoric he uses, and does not use, to advance Mothers’ Compensation Laws. Lindsey’s language about these laws reflects long-held ideas about the connections between economic stability and social welfare, and is colored with his traditional views on women as family nurturers. Other historians have studied the impact of these laws and their reflection of a maternal Progressivism bundled in the racial, gendered, and economic subtexts of the early twentieth century. However, Lindsey often chose to employ storytelling to draw attention to the issues he championed. Buried in the sentimental language and extreme comparison between women and horses (and sometimes dogs) meant, Lindsey provided a complex rhetoric that helped provide a paternalistic foundation to this new relationship between mothers and the State.

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 Presented in Session 29. Gender, Power, and Law