Settlement Houses: Sites of Service, Access, and Connection for WomenRoundup
tags: historic preservation, immigration, urban history, womens history
Tamar Rabinowitz is the former ACLS/Mellon public fellow at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and currently an adjunct assistant professor of history at Brooklyn College.
In October 1901, a young woman wrote to the advice columnist of The Ladies Home Journal complaining she was bored from too much “leisure, plenty of money, abounding health, a beautiful home and many friends,” and wondered if factory work might prove to be more exciting. Advice columnist Margaret E. Sangster suggested another remedy, “Settlement Work, if you would give it an honest trial, would clear your vision. In working for others you would yourself be immensely helped.”
By 1901, hundreds of settlement houses dotted the crowded neighborhoods of America’s rapidly expanding cities. The settlement house movement was founded in London in 1884 and earned their name from the fact that their mostly college-educated, (and eventually) mostly female staff also lived on site, ‘settling’ among the local communities they aimed to serve.
As industrialization, mass immigration, and expanded educational opportunities for women began to reshape the American city, the settlement house movement quickly swept across the United States. The first American settlement, The Neighborhood Guild, landed on New York’s Lower East Side in 1886—still operating today as the University Settlement. It was soon followed by Hull House in Chicago, founded in 1889 by the national leader of the settlement house movement and influential social reformer, Jane Addams.
Progressive Era settlement houses fostered the activism and intellectual creativity, as well as the conflicts, that would profoundly shape American modernity in the 20th century. For the growing population of newly minted women college graduates, settlement work offered an unprecedented opportunity to put to active use the education only recently made available to them.
For the first time, many moved out of their family homes to live on their own and gained access to a wide range of professional development opportunities. Not only did the settlement house provide hands-on training in social work, social science research, education, public policy, nursing, and medicine, it was also a space in which these women were actively defining the work and standards of these modern professions.
What is more, moving into a settlement house allowed women to delay or even reject the traditions of heterosexual marriage. These female-centered spaces were thus foundational LGBTQ historic sites in which women formed partnerships and friendships that challenged contemporary class, gender, and cultural norms.
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