Settlement House Spinsters

While I am just about to set forth on my trip to Philadelphia for the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (SSAWW) conference, I am also thinking pretty seriously about the paper that I will present at the Pacific and Ancient Modern Language Association (PAMLA) conference in San Francisco two and a half weeks from now. At the PAMLA conference I will be presenting on a panel about Marriage in Nineteenth Century America.

My paper: “Settlement House Spinsters: How Settlement Houses Saved Women from Marriage” pretty much starts at the premise that marriage is something that women should be saved from, especially in the nineteenth century. I am interested in examining the ways that settlement houses offered women an alternative to heterosexual marriage, child-rearing, and domestic duties.

This paper is focused more on white middle-class women than much of the other research I have done thus far. In part this is because I am focusing on the women who worked in the social settlement, not those who lived in the neighborhood and in part this is because I will be focused on the community at Hull-House.

Hull-House and the writings of Jane Addams are at the core of this paper. At this point I plan to look at the rhetoric that she is using in two articles/speeches: “The Subjective Necessity for Settlement Houses” (1892) and “Filial Relations” (1902). I examine how Jane Addams crafts her arguments which state that young, middle-class men and women (only women in the case of “Filial Relations”) have been educated to value work that helps others; that many young people have a natural desire and inclination dedicate their time and energy to making the world a better place and righting injustices in the world, but nineteenth century middle-class society is often uncomfortable with their children leaving the comfort of their sheltered worlds, committing themselves to this kind of work and living in the poorest neighborhoods of the cities.

Moreover, Addams argues young, educated, middle-class women especially are in a bind because they have been trained to be socially committed but they have very few options when they are done with school. Young women can become wives and mothers and precious little else. Addams suggests that we should begin to think about the good it will do to allow young women to embark on work in settlement houses after college.

Working in the settlement house also offers certain benefits for young women who don’t wish to marry, but want to be out of their parents’ homes and doing something useful. For instance, there is a broad array of work that is available for the women to do. These women have useful skills, passionate social concerns, and are eager to apply themselves in places where they are needed. Also many women were interested in seeing the world outside of the cloistered worlds of home and school that they in which have been trapped for most of their lives. Also, for women who are uninterested in marriage altogether perhaps because they are not interested in heterosexual monogamy or desire to live in a women-centered communal living situation social settlements allow them the freedom to do this, under the coverage of an institution, but not in a traditional marriage. The social settlement allows these women a place for autonomy and independence.

For background I looking at books about the history of marriage in America, like Hendrik Hartog’s Man and Wife in America: A History and Nancy Cott’s Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. I am limiting this paper to Hull-House for the sake of focus. I will also check out Eleanor Stebner’s 1997 dissertation The Women of Hull House: A Study in Spirituality, Vocation, and Friendship and literature on the lives of women like Addams, Julia Lathrop, and Florence Kelley in order to augment my analysis of Addams’s writing with historical context, biographical examples, and hopefully find some critical connections between the philosophies at work in social settlements, women’s rights groups, the nineteenth-century American family, and an evolving national identity.

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