Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Religion & Culture / Religious Studies


Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Dr. Carol B. Duncan

Advisor Role

Dr. Carol B. Duncan


Using the case study of single mothers in the United States between 1945 and 1990, I examine the power wielded by a network of authoritative charity and social service institutions and how they systematically denied agency to the single mothers in their care while establishing their own influence in American society. I contend that this occurred in four instances of lenience and discipline, as described theoretically by Maya Mayblin and Michel Foucault. The first mechanism of lenience formed in response to massive immigration of European Catholics to the United States between 1820 and 1920. Catholic hierarchy created opportunity for laity to take on leadership through Catholic charity work in order to create institutions that would support their burgeoning, and impoverished population. Catholic leadership emphasized Rerum Novarum’s commands to provide charity as a priority for laity. Catholic laity took advantage of this and established their authority in charity institutions, and set the stage for the two following mechanisms of lenience. The second mechanism is one in which the American government responded to Catholics’ strong charity-building tendencies by allowing them a voice in American social welfare policy creation, evidenced clearly in the New Deal. In the third mechanism of lenience, the Catholic hierarchy and women who performed charity work saw that they would benefit form co-opting the authority of social work ideas and principles. They invited social workers and their practices in to Catholic maternity homes, and their policy of encouraging single mothers to keep their infants changed into one of coercing mothers to surrender their infants for adoption against their will. The final mechanism is one of discipline as it is described by Michel Foucault, in which the “right to punish” is framed as a necessary measure to protect the public. Through my interviews with single mothers who have spent time in Catholic maternity homes, I examine how single mothers became targets of such discipline for the benefit of Catholic charitable institutions and social work. Social workers infiltrated and influenced religious charity agencies and collected information about the single mothers who passed through their care. Eventually, social workers used this information to develop their own expertise in the realm of single motherhood. By examining the historical context of each party involved, this study presents one case study of how institutional vulnerabilities and ambitions can cause institutions to abuse those who they claim to serve for their own benefit.

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