Uptown Girl in the Social Settlement: Richard Harding Davis’s “Eleanore Cuyler”

In 1892, Richard Harding Davis published the book Van Bibber, and others, which includes a rather cynical depiction of an uptown woman’s experience in social settlement work. The woman, Eleanore Cuyler, is depicted as a social work dilettante, who enjoys the dramatic and showy moments of her good works, like when she presents legislation about kindergartens. Before entering settlement work Eleanore imagines herself visiting prisoners and nursing the ill, bringing solace and health to the needy.

Davis was a writer, war correspondent,  journalist, and the son of Rebecca Harding Davis, who wrote the novella Life in the Iron Mills (1861).

Richard Harding Davis (From PBS.org)

Van Bibber, and others includes the story “Eleanore Cuyler” about an uptown woman from high society who is dedicated to her freedom as a single woman of means and refuses to marry or even commit to any of her suitors. When her dearest friend Wainwright asks her to marry him, she is forced to decide: except his offer and turn her back on her freedom or reject him and remain independent. She rejects his proposal and Wainwright, leaves for work in the London theater. After some time casting about in a melancholy state, Eleanore determines to throw herself into work in the College Settlement on New York’s Lower East Side, against the advice of her mother and doctor.[1] Eleanore feels “mentally tired” and decides that she needs a “change of air and environment, and unselfish work for the good of others, and less thought of herself” (Davis 104). She leaves her posh home uptown to live in the College Settlement, but the more romantic work of “a Father Damien[2] or a Florence Nightingale” goes to women who are “wiser” and whose pleasant and practical demeanor baffle her. Eleanore had envisioned herself visiting prisoners and nursing the ill, but the women who run the settlement have seen many would-be social workers come and go; therefore, Eleanore is relegated to less heroic tasks, like reading the Bible in German to an elderly woman and helping with a summer vacation program for working-girls out on Long Island.

Upon working there for some time, Eleanore is not only ashamed at how tiny her contribution feels to the work of the College Settlement, but she is also ashamed of the amount of excitement her presence generates when she visits her former neighborhood and society friends. “The good she did now, it was humiliating to acknowledge, was in no way proportionate to that which her influence had wrought among the people of her own class” (Davis 107). Her life on the east side is exciting and exotic to the men and women of her uptown community. Continue reading

Jane Addams and Life after College

Jane Addams offers an answer to the question “what is there after college?” for the young woman at the turn of the last century. Addams spoke about the topic often and wrote about it directly in the texts: “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements” (1892/1893), and “Filial Relations” (1902).

Jane Addams, 1900

These texts sought to change the limited cultural and familial roles of middle-class women and bring more bright, energetic women out of the stifling confines of nineteenth-century gender roles and into the vibrant and messy world of the immigrant communities of Chicago.

While these two texts differ slightly in their focus, both were written as much to address the parents of young people who are working in, or wanted to work in, social settlements as the young women themselves (Tichi 102). “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements” was delivered as a speech at the School of Applied Ethics, a six-week summer program organized by the Society for Ethical Culture in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was not only well received when it was delivered with its companion speech, “The Objective Value of a Social Settlement,” but both speeches were subsequently published broadly. “Filial Relations” was published in the book Democracy and Social Ethics alongside chapters entitled “Charitable Efforts” and “Political Reform.” This text reflects Addams’s commitment to a larger ethical outlook and the need to include everyone in the democratic life of the nation.

What will become evident is that the suggestions made in these texts and speeches led many women to break from their families and form affiliative attachments with the women (and men) with whom they worked. This outcome is only barely suggested in Addams’s writings, but the reality of the separation was borne out in the lives of the women who resided and worked at Hull-House. It would have been unwise to discuss the strength of the relationships that women could form in a collegial and collaborative environment in these arguments, though today the quality and strength of relationships between unrelated adults is seen as a marker of maturity and individuation. In Addams’s world, however, the focus, at least for the lives of women was on a woman’s relationships and commitments to her family first.

The text “Filial Relations” in particular appears to have been written to parents of middle-class women, which is a rhetorical strategy she uses in hopes of liberating young women from the limitations of domestic life. Addams begins by establishing that the bulk of people do not “share the effort toward a higher social morality,” but are content to express a general conservatism, which takes as its standards the well-worn roles and cultural expectations of the past. Those who hold those notions of social conservatism judge harshly anyone who deviates from these behaviors or viewpoints. There is a logic in this, Addams observes, because these practices are proven and offer stability to the community. Yet in this age of expanding democracy, new relationships are being tested. In order to fulfill the higher call that our flourishing democratic ideals and social relations demand, some will need to (and want to) reorient their energies from the family and themselves to a loftier social goal. Thus, Addams has laid forth the changing social and political landscape of America and identified the reasonable intentions of individuals who feel no call to reform and service and adhere to traditional roles and behaviors in an attempt to win over the skeptics to her work (76-77). Continue reading