Marriage Breakdown

On Social Settlements, Relationships and Marriage: Breaking It Down

For this project I initially thought that I would write one chapter about how marriage in Progressive Era America was effected by social settlements, half devoted to how settlement houses fostered cross-class relationships, with a particular focus on Yezeriska’s Salome of the Tenements and the other half devoted to how women were able to avoid heterosexual marriage and domestic obligations through their participation in settlement house work.

The settlement house offered women much of the coverage of marriage but without all the duties and obligations of marriage and raising a family. There must have been a breadth of experience for women in the settlement house, some institutions offering more autonomy and personal expression than others, while others were directed in a heavy-handed and paternalistic manner. I am curious if there is any correlation between the social settlements that were organized and run by women and those that were organized and supervised by men. Moreover I wonder if there are patterns of difference between different social settlements based on their individual missions. For instance Henry Street Settlement began (as I understand it from my limited research) after Lillian Wald had done a visiting nurse stint in the Lower East Side just after she was done with nursing school and saw that there was a rather profound need. Thus, HSS was begun as an institution that would take young women fresh from nursing school and send them into the local neighborhood to tend to the welfare of the local families. That kind of a project might need more direction and structure than Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr’s rather amorphous project in which they leased a ramshackle mansion and threw open the doors, asking their neighbors what they need. It seems to me that the leadership at Hull-House allowed their residents and neighborhood participants a lot of leeway in determining the needs of the community and then crafting a plan of action to meet those needs. This seems to be the kind of environment that would grant more agency to the young women who worked in it.

Thus for the chapter focused on “Settlement House Spinsters” I will want to look at Addams’s “The Subjective Necessity of the Settlement House” and also other articles on the young women who arrived took up residence in the social settlement. Moreover I think that some research on Florence Kelley might be useful since she left a heterosexual marriage and had three kids and was able to live a vibrant and professionally fulfilling life at Hull-House. Beyond that I will need to look at materials that address marriage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That might offer some insight into what women were trying to avoid by seeking the coverage of the social settlement.  I know there is plenty of research about women’s colleges during the Progressive Era, including material about the different women’s schools, how they prepared the women for their lives after college. I believe that Bryn Mawr was particularly focused on turning out women who had a social mission, but that this lead to great frustration for many women, who upon graduation found that there was little for them to do. It is important to keep in mind that this situation is all wrapped up in issues of class, because poor women worked and raised children and had little choice about it. There wasn’t the middle-class ennui for them, though that claim might not hold water. There was dissatisfaction, but was related to different causes.

In Louise Levitas Henriksen’s biography of her mother she writes about her mother’s complaints about the unfairness of the gendered household situation. Yezierska wrote particularly about the excruciating experience of being a woman who had once worked and then is forced into the home upon marriage and childbearing – to be the supported woman. However, Yezierska’s situation suggests a certain amount of money and privilege. Yezierska had only one child and could even afford to hire her nieces to help her around the house. She lived in what seems was a much larger apartment than her sister Annie. Whereas Annie had many children and her husband didn’t make much money. Her apartment was described a cramped and squalid – that is much different that the situation that Anzia Yezierska is describing in her true-confessions notes about “The Supported Wife.” While this is an interesting topic, it might not be that pertinent to my focus on just how the settlement house offered women an alternative to marriage.

The other chapter that could emerge from this work about the way in which social settlements and reform initiatives allowed for cross-class relationships has already begun to take shape in my previous blog post: “On Being a Specimen and Picturesque: Anzia Yezierska and the Modern Gaze.” While this post is more focused on the larger social phenomenon of the immigrant woman in the world of the social settlement and as she is interpreted by the modernizing forces of society that sought to interpollate the Southern and Eastern European immigrants into the new national identity, there are hints of how these phenomena played out in one-on-one romantic relationships. However, I think that is a post ripe with ideas that need to be explored further; it deserves a follow-up. A good place to start would be Carrie Tirado Bramen’s article and her bibliography. Moreover, my reading about Yezierska and my reading of her work is yielding a lot of material about her critique of social settlements, reform initiatives and social science. I think some of that material may be very appropriate for the introduction or conclusion of my dissertation.

In order to focus on the cross-class relationships in and around the settlement house I need to look more closely to Yezierska’s writing directly and her depiction of these relationships in texts such as novels Salome of the Tenements, and Arrogant Beggar, and short stories “Wings,” “The Miracle,” “To the Stars,”and “Children of Loneliness.” Another source that might be both academically fruitful and very interesting are the newspaper articles about Rose Pastor and Graham Stokes’s courtship and marriage. According to Yezierska’s biographer (and daughter) Louise Levitas Henriksen after Yezierska had spent Thanksgiving 1917 with Pastor Stokes she was committed to writing a story that captured some of what she had heard her friend tell her about the Pastor-Stokes marriage. In newspapers and magazines at the time of the wedding, the Pastor-Stokes relationship was presented as a Cinderella story – Pastor, dirty and laboring amid tenement squalor, finds her Prince Charming in a fortuitous encounter with a rich philanthropist. I will be curious to see how the newspapers spun that story.

It is not surprising that each of these topics is worthy of their own entire text. But my arch nemesis is a bunch of shiny balls of intellectual tin foil that beckon to be batted around.

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