Social Welfare Provision at the Imperial Edge: Single Mothers and Abandoned Children in the Late Russian Empire

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This article looks to the societal and imperial margins to examine attitudes towards social welfare provision in the final decades of the Russian Empire. Drawing on archival material from the Empire's Estliand province (now northern Estonia), the article focuses on the self-representation of single mothers and official discussions of abandoned children. Society was in flux in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and rural-to-urban migration served to undermine traditional social structures, mentalities and identities. These changes were accompanied by the disruption of the traditional patriarchal gender order, as well shifting ideas about who ought to be responsible for taking care of vulnerable groups. In rural Estliand, Estonian-speaking unmarried women sought engagement with Russian imperial judicial structures to secure child maintenance. In the early 1900s, anxieties about the social impacts of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation and the development of new currents in philanthropy, meant that care for foundlings and abandoned children became a burning issue in the minds of Estliand's provincial officials. Examining single mothers and child abandonment in Estliand illuminates tensions between empire-wide and local mechanisms for dealing with social issues, as well as shifting attitudes to gender, the family and charity in light of urbanisation and modernisation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)973-993
Number of pages21
JournalGender & History
Issue number3
Early online date23 Jun 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2023


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