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Annual Meeting Preview: “Social Movements and the American Welfare State”

This session takes place on Friday, April 5, at the 2019 OAH Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.
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Chair and Commentator: Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, Cornell University

From Navigating the Welfare State to Enforcing Civil Rights: Federal Funds and Disability Legal Advocacy in the Late Twentieth Century U.S.
Karen Tani, University of California, Berkeley

Women’s Workfare: Feminist Rape Crisis Centers and the Comprehensive Employment Training Act
Caitlin Wiesner, Rutgers University

AIDS, the American with Disabilities Act, and the Welfare State
Nancy Brown, Purdue University

Defending Veterans’ Welfare State: The American Legion and the Problem of Economic Security for Aging Veterans in the 1950s
Olivier Burtin, Princeton University


“Social Movements and the American Welfare State”

The purpose of this session is to draw together historians at various points in their career—from senior scholars to graduate students—whose work demonstrates the wide range of exciting new approaches to the relationship between social movements and the welfare state in the United States. By framing the panel in terms of these two broad categories, the goal is to encourage panelists and the audience to go beyond the specific case studies presented here and to engage in a comparative discussion about the connections between the state and civil society in the realm of social policy.

In addition to their being based on original primary research, there are several remarkable features about the papers in this panel. First, they adopt a definition of “welfare” that goes beyond its traditionally negative understanding as monetary payment for the undeserving poor. Instead, they cover the different ways in which the state intervenes in society to promote the well-being of its population (and/or to control its behavior). Second, they bring together an array of groups that have traditionally been studied by scholars in separate subfields, such as military veterans, people with disabilities, feminist activists, and gay rights advocates—in a way that will surely bring to light unexpected similarities or differences between them. Finally, they cover a wide chronological range, from the early post–World War II period to the 1990s, and in so doing encourage discussants to think about the long-term evolution of welfare policy.

For a better understanding of the material presented in this panel, audience members can read the essay by Maurizio Vaudagna in Alice Kessler-Harris and Vaudagna’s Democracy and the Welfare State: The Two Wests in the Age of Austerity (2018), which provides a good overview of the historiography on the welfare state between 1975 and 1995. For a broad synthesis of the various branches of the U.S. welfare state, both public and private, Michael Katz’s The Price of Citizenship: Redefining the American Welfare State (2008) remains a reference.

To end on a personal note, I see a number of ways in which this panel will contribute to opening new avenues of research for me. Since I am currently working on my book manuscript, the opportunity to zoom out from my own focus on war veterans and to think in broader terms about the ways in which former soldiers formed a social movement that resembled others is very valuable. While every member of the panel can benefit from such a comparative perspective, this is perhaps even more the case for a historian of veterans, a group that welfare historians have traditionally not focused on. While scholars like Jennifer Mittelstadt and Jessica Adler have begun to study the intersection between war and welfare, much work remains to be done on this topic.


Olivier Burtin is a Lecturer in the Department of History at Princeton University. He is a political historian of the modern United States, with particular interests in social movements and the state, military history, welfare, race, and gender. A native of France, he obtained a B.A. (2009) and a M.A. in History (2011) from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), and a M.A. in History from Princeton (2013). He obtained his Ph.D. in History from Princeton in 2017.

Posted: December 5, 2018
Tagged: Previews, OAH Works, Conference