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

What Makes a Settlement House? Blogging SSAWW 2009

After our panel presentations yesterday, Voices from the Settlement House an interesting question was posed by University of California, San Diego professor Nicole Tonkovich about whether or not settlement houses were exclusively an urban phenomenon. The discussion that evolved during the Q&A period and then after lunch showed that this not a easily answerable . . . .

Sarah Lock, a professor from Weatherford College, who presented on the panel, offered a really nice explanation about other contemporary (Progressive Era, 1880-1920) institutions that fulfilled same functions but in different locales. “Settlement houses”or “social settlements” bearing that specific moniker do seem to be largely urban, most likely because of the concentration of money and people that are needed to offer the breadth of resources to a mass of people. Moreover the social settlement is also a institution in space, a building or a series of buildings, not just a collection of services.

However, as Lock pointed out, there are examples of other organizations that offered many of the same programs that were associated with African American schools in the south, thus they are not exactly urban (or in the north) but they are institutional in organization and had a community of people to serve and from which to draw resources. I suggested that some of the work that was conducted at or by asocial settlement did on occasions get taken up by women’s groups, thus extending the borders of one institution across the nation. The example I was thinking about was when a group of women at Hull House were reforming child labor practices and in an effort to document incidences of child labor they sent out a call to women’s groups across the country asking them to begin documenting incidents that they saw firsthand in their own communities of children working. This call was met by women who were awakened to the reality of child labor in their communities and then their results were brought into the larger work of the activists based in the urban (northern) social settlement.

Another question that arose from this conversation was posed over lunch by Judith Ranta. Ranta works on women and girls who labored in the New England textile mills and she delivered the third paper on our panel. Her paper discussed Jennie Collins (1828-1887) and Boffins’ Bower, which was an institution that helped find work for women and offered a myriad of much-needed services to the poorest women of Boston. Over our Chinese food, Ranta asked if we thought Boffin’s Bower was a settlement house. Obviously, I thought it fit enough to include her paper on the panel, but when we started to discuss it many questions about category distinctions arose.

Boffin’s Bower was established in Boston’s East Side in the 1870’s, many years before Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr opened Hull House. Boffin’s Bower was started by Jennie Collins who was not a college-educated reformer, but who already lived in the southside neighborhood in which she established her organization.

Ranta noted that the wealthy women of Boston who engaged in philanthropy were suspicious of Collins and Boffins’ Bower. However, these same philanthropically-minded women did, a few years later, give money to the college-educated women who arrived in Boston to do reform work. Ranta’s work on Collins is fascinating, and she has edited and written an introduction for a new addition of Nature’s Aristocracy: A Plea for the Oppressed (1871) by Jennie Collins that will be released in May 2010 by University of Nebraska Press.

Some of the questions that we identified that might be pertinent to the question of what distinguishes a settlement house from something else might include:

Is a social settlement defined by the fact that educated middle-class women (and men) establish it or provide the services to the neighbors?

Does it need to be located in an urban environment? Is there something particular about social settlements that mean they are defined by the structure that they take in relation to the surrounding neighborhood?

Are there types of services that are included in a number of social settlements that can be used to define them?

I imagine that there are other questions that I will come upon that will flesh out this discussion, but these are my initial thoughts. None of us could think of any texts that have defined settlement houses or taken on this question. Obviously social settlements began in England, so perhaps looking to the origin of the name and the institution there would be a place to start. I imagine that in the U.S. the use of the term social settlement or settlement house began after Addams and Starr returned from London, which is why Jennie Collins didn’t call Boffins’ Bower a settlement house. Of course other American reformers may have imported the term as well.

Perhaps another place to look for information about the question of locale and the kinds of work that was done in social settlements might be on the little bit of scholarship that links the black missions of the south to the settlement houses of the north.[1] I think it is significant to this relationship that Victoria Earle Matthews, named her settlement the White Rose Mission. Matthews was a African American journalist, who’d been born into slavery and eventually move to New York City and opened a social settlement after the death of her teenage son.

[1] See Luker, Ralph E. “Missions, Institutional Churches, and Settlement Houses: The Black Experience, 1885-1910.” The Journal of Negro History 69.3/4 (1984): 101-13. I haven’t yet found any more recent work that addresses this issue.

Salome of the Tenements Serves the Settlement on a Silver Platter – Blogging SSAWW 2009

This is more or less my paper from my panel, minus all the engaging extemporaneous bits.

As a part of the  larger project that I am currently working on which analyzes the rhetoric about the purposes and outcomes of Progressive Era social settlements in texts written by women I will speak today about Anzia Yezierska’s 1923 novel Salome of the Tenements. I will identify her critiques of settlement houses and progressive reform projects, and then discuss how she tried to answer the problems she presents. Lastly I will examine how Yezierska may be identifiable as an example of a New Woman or New Jewish Woman and how that might impact her analysis of the philanthropic projects that she describes.

Anzia Yezierska was a Jewish woman who emigrated to the US in her youth from a Russian Polish village in the Pale. During her young life she lived in the Lower East Side of New York, worked various jobs and earned a degree from Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. After two brief marriages and giving birth to a daughter Louise, who also became her biographer, Yezierska had a love affair with John Dewey. This short-lived relationship was one of the most important experiences to influence her writing and perhaps her vision of the world.

John Dewey

In 1918, by Dewey’s hand, she spent the spring and summer with a few of Dewey’s Columbia University graduate students and the eccentric businessman Albert Barnes working on a poorly organized, probably ill-conceived, research project in a Russian-Polish enclave right here in Philadelphia. This time spent working with social scientists and the wealthy Albert Barnes, who underwrote the cost of the project, also informed Yezierska’s critical assessment of the work of academics and philanthropists. Yezierksa’s fiction is rather autobiographical and her autobiography is sometimes laced with fiction.

Salome of the Tenements fits this mold as well. It features many characters and plot lines that match up with her real life experiences. The main character Sonya Vrunsky’s relationship with the philanthropist John Manning bears remarkable hints of Yezierska and Dewey. Moreover Sonya’s story of a poor immigrant girl who becomes the wife of a millionaire is based on the life of her friend Rose Pastor who married wealthy philanthropist Graham Stokes. Sonya’s story begins when she meets the man of her dreams at an interview that she conducts for the newspaper for which she writes. She is determined to marry John Manning, but realizes that she must make her appearance more appealing to a man of his standing. By the use of her wiles and charms she procures three ingredients for her seduction: first Sonya gets a the famous uptown designer Jacques Hollins to make her a stunning yet simple dress, then she manipulates her landlord into repairing and repainting her tenement, and lastly she convinces the local pawnbroker to loan her $100 to redecorate her room based on the strength of her conviction that she will marry her millionaire.

Her plan is successful, in no small part due to Sonya’s exquisite sense of taste and her enthralling beauty. She becomes John Manning’s secretary at the settlement, which helps their relationship bloom. They then marry, but separate within months. The separation comes only after a disastrous downtown meets uptown wedding reception and a blackmail scheme perpetrated by the pawnbroker to whom Sonya now owes $1500. Lastly their marriage is rocked when Sonya spends time witnessing the troublesome inner workings of the Manning Settlement House.

Continue reading

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.