Alice Kessler-Harris, Maurizio Vaudagna (edited by)
"All history is contemporary history" famously said Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce
as he hinted at the present concerns and dreams that guide historians in focussing their
scholarly interests and selecting subjects of research. The history of social rights aptly
responds to Croce's maxim. Different from earlier decades when the subject was mainly
treated by sociologists and political scientists, historians have entered the field in the last
twenty-five years. They have given much more attention to the twentieth-century development
of what is alternately called social provision, the welfare state, the social service
state, or the social rights of citizenship. An abundant crop of new books has appeared
in the historical literature, many of them written from a comparative or international
Two trends best explain the new historical focus. On the one hand the blooming
of women's history has generated interest in previously marginalized subjects such as the
perpetuation of family and community; the meaning of household work; the nature of
paid and unpaid "caring" duties; and the provision of services for the poor, the elderly,
children and the sick. Women's historians have also fostered a debate over the role of the
state in relationship to these social issues. On the other hand the so called "crisis of the
welfare state" that emerged in the late seventies, has led historians to take a new look at
the political and economic sources of modern social rights. While, in different degrees,
these had been seen as givens for most Western industrial countries in the post-World-
War-II years, they are increasingly in jeopardy.
To find out why, social scientists, including historians, have turned to the past,
looking for the development of a sometimes contradictory, but definitely relevant, achievement
of the otherwise troubled twentieth century. Their search should lead to proposals
for how best to rethink the place and the nature of social rights in the context of new
demands for democratic participation. This book takes its place in that literature.
Institutionally this book is born out of the cooperation between the Department of
History of Columbia University and CISPEA, the consortium of Italian Americanist
historians at the Universities of Bologna, Florence, Triest and Eastern Piedmont.
The papers presented here are the products of a conference held in Vercelli and Torino
in the spring of 2008. That conference was the third in a series on the history of social
rights held in New York and Italy in 2006 and dealing first with the transatlantic welfare
states between democracy and totalitarianism and then with the history and the future
of social justice.
We are grateful to the sponsors and contributors that have supported our conferences: at
Columbia University we thank the Office of the Provost, the Department of History, the
Herbert H. Lehman Center for American History and the Italian Academy for Advanced
Studies in America; in Italy, in addition to CISPEA, the University of Eastern Piedmont
and its Department of Human Studies, and the "Piero Bairati" Center for American and
We are equally grateful to colleagues from many transatlantic countries for the
wide range of issues and nations that their essays have covered. The large scholarly terrain
considered in this book responds to the civic concern that is so visible in this area of
historical studies. At the same time we intend this publication as an intermediate step.
We hope that our joint efforts will continue to produce an enriching exchange of ideas
and continuing scholarly work. We dedicate this book to new cooperative efforts.
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