Gender, work and social control: a century of disability benefits

Jackie Gulland SPA Award graphic

by Jackie Gulland


I am delighted that this book has won the Social Policy Association’s Richard Titmuss Book Award. In this blog I want to tell you a little about what the book is about and what it might mean today.

The book is about benefits for people who are considered to be ‘incapable of work’ because of a health issue or impairment. The concept of ‘incapacity for work’ is problematic for those who see disability through a social model lens: one where disability is caused by society rather than situated within an individual. However, access to social security benefits in the UK and in many other countries is shaped by categories of eligibility. These categories define claimants as available for work within the labour market or exempt from this requirement. Therefore, for many people with health issues or impairments, the label ‘unable to work’ has been important for gaining access to benefits.  We know today that many people claiming benefits such as Employment and Support Allowance are refused and have to appeal to be successful. This book is the result of research using archive materials relating to appeals against refusals of incapacity benefits in the UK since 1911 to explore the meaning of the term ‘incapable of work’ over a hundred years.

In the book I use these legal cases to understand how decision making on disability benefits reflect wider assumptions about society and in particular reflect assumptions about gender and the labour market. The themes arising from this research became, more or less, the chapter titles in the book. The chapters cover the ways in which definitions of incapacity for work have changed, and stayed the same, over 100 years, the role of medical practitioners in providing supporting evidence for  benefit claims, ideas about the nature of ‘work’, what it is, what it is not and who should be exempted from doing it. This inevitably led to the question of gender. Men and women were treated differently in decision making about capacity for work in the past. There were various reasons for this, one being that men and women tended to do different kinds of paid work and so assessments of what they were capable of took account of different labour market expectations. However, a second hurdle for women claimants, and particularly married women, was that any domestic work which they carried out in their own homes was considered to be evidence of capacity in the labour market too. This left women in a position where it was much more difficult to prove eligibility for benefits. Such explicit differences in assessment for men and women do not happen in the same way today. However, social security systems today are still based on an ‘ideal worker’ model which makes it more difficult for women to access benefits because of structural differences in reproductive labour and access to paid work.

In the early twentieth century, people could be refused benefit because of their alleged immoral conduct: sexual conduct, use of alcohol or criminal behaviour. The chapter on this topic explores how this changed. Another key finding from the historical material was the role of sick visitors, people who would visit claimants at home and check up on whether they were really as ill or disabled as they claimed. Again we don’t have this directly today but we have new levels of surveillance of claimants.

A key starting point for my research was the work of Mary Macarthur, an early twentieth century feminist and activist. For more about Mary Macarthur, see a blogpost which I wrote for the Dangerous Women project Mary Macarthur said, in a dissenting memorandum to a report back in 1914, that the introduction of a new benefit had revealed inequalities which had previously been overlooked.[1] Today the COVID-19 pandemic has also revealed inequalities in health and in the meaning of ‘work’. Although there has been some small recognition of the value of social security in providing a safety net for people in times of economic and other crises, there continue to be big holes in this net. Others have looked at how patterns of work and social security have particularly detrimental effects on women and how this has been exacerbated during the crisis, for example the Covid Realities project Ashlee Cristoffersen has also written on this site about inequalities and intersectionality

Women’s gendered caring and work patterns have been largely overlooked in policy responses to the crisis. I’ve written about this in a recent article, which looks at how rules on ‘households’ during lockdown have been unable to encompass the complexity of caring relationships, which particularly affect women .

As feminists we have a duty to continue to ask questions about how social policies affect and reflect existing inequalities in society. My book opens up questions about how some of this worked in the past but inequalities continue today.

Gender, work and social control: a century of disability benefits is published by Palgrave Macmillan, see here  . It is also available through many libraries.

For more information about the research project and related publications, see

Dr Jackie Gulland with her book prize


Dr Jackie Gulland is a lecturer in social work at the University of Edinburgh. Her work is inter-disciplinary and crosses the fields of social policy, sociology, social work, history and law.  A former welfare rights and disability adviser, her research concerns disability, older people, caring, gender and how people negotiate their rights within the welfare state. Her current research concerns gender and care and the relationship between the social security system and concepts of work and reproductive labour.

Twitter: @JackieGulland

[1] National Health Insurance Joint Committee, 1914. National Health Insurance. Report of the Departmental Committee on sickness benefit claims under the National Insurance Act. Cd. 7687. HMSO, London.