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Robyn Muncy Interview


Robyn Muncy is the Associate Professor of U.S. History and Women’s History at the University of Maryland, College Park. 

She is the author of Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform 1890-1935; and co-editor of Engendering America

Her many scholarly articles cover gender issues as they relate to turn-of-the-20th-century American politics and the economy.

Robyn Muncy

ROBYN MUNCY Associate Professor of History, 
University of Maryland, College Park. 

QUESTION: How did the Settlement Movement begin? 

ROBYN MUNCY: The Settlement Movement began in England with Toynbee Hall, which was a place in England's slum area where a bunch of university men went to live in this working class neighborhood. They were going to share the benefits of their [education] and privileges with the working class around them. 

A lot of American women went to Toynbee Hall and brought the idea back to the U.S. And in the U.S., there were hundreds and hundreds of social settlements by the 1910s. Some of them had ten or twelve people living in them; some of them had seventy or eighty people living in them. And they were places where middle class people went to live in working class, usually overwhelmingly immigrant, neighborhoods. The idea among the women who lived in the settlements [was] that they would not only share the privileges of their middle-class upbringings and [education] with the working class neighborhood, but that they would also benefit from learning from their working class neighbors. So, it was to be a mutual relationship. 

QUESTION: Can you trace the development of Hull House in Chicago? 

ROBYN MUNCY: Hull House was founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. [These two women] were both a part of the first generation of women who went to college in the 1870s and 1880s with a great deal of fanfare, with a great deal of ambition. [But] they would come out of college and have very few options available to them. They could either teach or go back to their families and serve tea and await marriage. 

[Jane Addams] went to a small college, Rockford College in Illinois. She met Ellen Gates Starr there. Jane Addams herself had ambitions to be a doctor, but that didn't work out. She was really depressed for about a decade. She did a lot of traveling in Europe during that time, and spending time with her family. And it was during that time that she visited Toynbee Hall with her friend Ellen Gates Starr. And so the story goes, they decided that this was their mission, that they would go now back to Chicago and found a social settlement. 

And so, sure enough, in 1889, they opened Hull House, which was to become the most renowned social settlement in the U.S., on the southwest side of Chicago. The neighborhood was [a] working-class, largely immigrant neighborhood. There were people from all over the place living in that neighborhood. 

And you can imagine when Ellen Gates Starr and Jane Addams, these very proper middle class women, decided to move into this neighborhood, what a stir that caused. Because, of course, middle-class women had gone into working-class neighborhoods before as sort of charitable ladies, but they would leave - they didn't move there. And so here were two women who proposed to go into a neighborhood and actually stay there, take up residence there. It caused quite a stir. But it appealed to other women who were in a situation like theirs - that is [women] who had these wonderful educations, who had developed ambitions to have a larger life while they were in college, but had very few options open to them. 

So, the settlement, Hull House, was inundated with applications from other young women who wanted to come and live with. They had like eighty applications right off the bat, and couldn't possibly accommodate all the women who were applying. Gradually, they occupied more and more space in this sort of dilapidated building on the southwest side and they began to renovate that. And they eventually were able to house about seventy people by the 'teens. 

In the late 1880s and early 1990s, when they were just starting out, they would have ten or fifteen people - maybe as many as twenty by the end of the decade - living with them in Hull House. And they began to get to know what the neighbors' needs were, and to try to find ways to meet the needs of their neighbors. And so, for instance, they founded after-school clubs for children, they created a daycare center. They eventually opened a library and a museum. They opened space for adults to have all kinds of meetings and classes. They has parties for the neighborhood, classes for the neighborhood that included especially English language classes and citizenship classes for people who wanted to become citizens. And, then, eventually, they began to advocate legislation that would improve the conditions of the neighborhood more broadly. 

QUESTION: How were ideas about race at the turn of the century different than they are now? 

ROBYN MUNCY: Ideas about race at the turn of the century were very different from ideas about race now. [I]mmigrants from Southern Europe and from Eastern Europe were considered to be of a different race from Anglo-Americans. Many native born Americans thought that this meant that people from southern Europe and from eastern Europe couldn't be assimilated. And [so they posed] a threat to American institutions, especially to the American republic. Many Americans thought that Catholics and Jews - especially Orthodox Jews - would never be able to assimilate to this democratic culture. And so, many advocated immigration restriction. Their solution to what was called the immigrant problem was simply to stop immigration. That put them on one extreme, one end of the spectrum of Americanizers. 

Then there were sort of people, I guess you might say, who were in the middle, who welcomed immigration, but wanted to strip away all evidence of an immigrant's culture. And so they wanted to strip the clothing, the language, the food [preferences] of immigrants as they came in. 

[The] women at Hull House [represented] the other extreme of Americanizers. They claimed, at least, to value many aspects of immigrant cultures. They believed that America was enriched by various cultures converging here, that was a really good thing for America. 

In the end, however, they really did have a kind of arrogance about their culture. They were very clear in their own minds that American institutions and American values - which included democracy and representative government, and the English language - were the best that civilization had to offer. And so, of course, all immigrants would aspire to those values in the end. So that we can see that there were limits to the ways that they valued immigrant culture. 

QUESTION: Why did the women at Hull House object to the ways in which immigrant women cared for their children? 

ROBYN MUNCY: [The] women at Hull House thought that laboring for wages interfered with a [woman's] ability to be a good mother. And, of course, [in some] ways that it did. If a woman had to leave her house to earn wages, for instance - and could not afford child care of any kind, and couldn't find a neighbor or a relative who would be willing to take care of her children - sometimes [she would have to leave her children] alone to fend for themselves for hours at a time. And so there were ways in which, of course, wage earning did interfere with the ability to care properly for children. 

But [even] the kinds of things that immigrant mothers often did like taking in piece work in their own homes where they could at least watch their children while they worked for wages, those kinds of strategies were [also] frowned [upon] by women at Hull House, though with great compassion. 

The position of Hull House women was that the larger community should provide funding that would allow those mothers to stay home with their children. They did not believe that the answer could include more and more day nurseries that would make it possible for mothers to go out and work for a living while their children were being well cared for. So their solutions tended toward trying to make it possible for immigrant women and all women to stay home with their children rather than to make a larger life possible. 

QUESTION: Why was Hull House Maps and Papers important as a sociological work? 

ROBYN MUNCY: Hull House Maps and Papers was a sociological study of the nineteenth ward, the neighborhood in which Hull House was situated. And it was based on a social survey that Florence Kelly oversaw. Florence Kelly was one of the early residents of Hull House. She was, herself a social scientist, a graduate of Cornell [University]. She was commissioned by the Commissioner of Labor to oversee a study of the nineteenth ward that would include a study of wages, [and of] nationalities. The Commissioner of Labor sent three or four agents to help Florence Kelly do this social survey of the neighborhood. They compiled all these statistics, all this information, [which] they sent back to Washington. 

But before they did that, the women of Hull House took down some of the information for their own use. They took down all the information on nationalities, and all the information about wages, and then they transformed that information into two great big maps. One was the map of nationalities in the nineteenth ward, and the other was the map of wages in the nineteenth ward. 

[T]he map showed the wages of the residents in [any given] building, and then another map showed you the nationalities of the people in that building. So you could look and see block by block - even building by building - where wages were falling out, and which nationalities were stacked next to each other in this ward. 

And then the women who had made those maps and taken down this, wrote a series of essays which [they called] Hull House Maps and Papers. They focused on various social problems, as well as different nationalities. So, for instance, there's an essay on sweatshops, there's an essay on child labor, and there's also an essay on bohemians in this neighborhood. 

Hull House Maps and Papers is probably the signal achievement of women social scientists in the nineteenth century. It represents a set of values that were [an integral] part of social science as it was developing in the 1860s and 1870s, [for both men and women]. But, as the new century grew nearer, men and women in social science were splitting apart. Men were increasingly going into academic social science departments, founding those departments and creating various social sciences as academic disciplines centered in universities. And women, [largely] because of discrimination against them, were not able to go that route in anything like the numbers that men were. 

And so women social scientists were continuing a tradition of sociology, of economics, of political science, of social science in general, outside of universities. And that stream of social science thought, that stream of social science practice, continued to marry moral imperatives to the collection of data. 

QUESTION: To what extent did the women at Hull House rely on statistics? 

ROBYN MUNCY: The women at Hull House did not rely on statistics alone. This is another way in which they veered off from the ways [in which male] social scientists used social science and/or statistics in an academic setting. They didn't try to publish tables upon tables of statistics. [Instead,] they tried to find ways to make that information graphic. And so the maps were the way that they made tables upon tables of information graphic. And they thought that [the maps] would reach a much larger audience than those tables would. 

In addition, they wanted to put a human face with those statistics. So they didn't just put out the numbers of child laborers in various industries, for instance. They would put out those numbers, and then tell you the story of a particular child in a particular industry, and show how that particular child was affected by serving in this industry. 

So [it was the] human element that they put with the statistics that made them incredibly successful popularizers of statistics. They used the statistics to reach a large audience, not just an academic audience, or even just a bureaucratic audience in a government agency. 

QUESTION: How did the women at Hull House attempt to push reform? 

ROBYN MUNCY: From the early 1890s, and especially under the tutelage of Florence Kelly, this very dynamic personality at Hull House, the residents of Hull House, and other women reformers developed a very clear method of reform. They would begin by identifying a problem. Then they would do the gathering of data, and that became a crucial piece of their strategy. And then they would gather that data together, analyze it, and publicize it along with proposed solutions to the problem, which increasingly were legislative solutions. They were sometimes public programs that the women advocated for the municipal government, sometimes it was the state level government; eventually those solutions would include the federal government. 

In the 1890s, and immediately thereafter, they were especially advocating solutions that would come out of local and state governments. So social science, or the gathering of data, became a key component of their research strategy. This is a way in which, of course, they differed dramatically from academic social [scientists], because increasingly through the 1890s and especially early into the twentieth century, academics began to claim that objectivity was a crucial component of their legitimacy as scientists. 

Hull House Maps and Papers foreshadowed the path that women reformers would take, and many women social scientists would take in the early twentieth century: that they would always own the political agenda of their science. They didn't think it was valuable to do science if it wasn't going to improve the lives of the people that they studied. This made them very different. And it meant that they couldn't claim objectivity, they couldn't find a place in academic social science to the degree that men could. 

QUESTION: What were some of the specific goals of the women at Hull House? 

ROBYN MUNCY: The women who were involved in transcribing information from [Florence Kelly's] social survey were very keen on showing the extreme poverty of various immigrant groups. One of the reasons they were so eager to demonstrate this poverty - and the conditions in which this poverty occurred - was that they were fighting a dominant notion of why people were poor. The dominant notion of the charitable ladies and gentlemen at the time was that people were poor because of vice, because they were sinful. 

And one of the things that the women at Hull House were very anxious to demonstrate was that the people in their neighborhood were not vicious - that they were not drunken, lazy bums - but were impoverished because of low wages, because of the conditions in which they worked. And they were able to show that there were correlations between various nationalities and the wages they earned, and between various nationalities and the kinds of industries that they could get into. And so throughout, as you read the essays, one of the recurring themes is this attempt to put to rest a notion that people were poor because of their own fault, not because of economic conditions. 

And, of course this is a battle that goes on still today, among policymakers. There are still those who claim that moral reform would be the way to end poverty: "Get those lazy welfare mothers off of welfare and out of crack dens," that that's the way that you end poverty. "It's their own fault, right? Poverty is their own fault." And then there are those that claim, "Look, it's economic conditions, you've got an economy in which not everybody can be employed, and when everybody is employed, they get lousy wages and have no benefits, and there's nobody to take care of the kids." So that same battle continues. It's a theme for the twentieth century. 


QUESTION: Eventually the Settlement Movement came to focus on women's and children's issues. Tell me how the Children's Bureau came into being. 

ROBYN MUNCY: Most historians attribute the idea for the Children's Bureau to Lillian Wald, who was another settlement head resident. She was the founder and head resident of the Henry Street Settlement in New York. It was a nurses' settlement. She herself was a nurse, and all of her residents were nurses, and they served the Lower East Side, especially as nurses - but eventually as reformers on a broader scale. 

In the early twentieth century, [about 1903], she is said to have been having a conversation with Florence Kelly, who had then moved into Henry Street, and to have said, in a fit of exasperation, "If we can have an agricultural department that studies the boll weevil, why can't we have a children's agency that studies children?" And there began the idea of the Children's Bureau. 

From 1903 forward then, Wald, women in the Settlement Movement generally, men and women in the National Child Labor Committee, and many other organizations began to lobby Congress and various presidents for the creation of an agency that would be devoted to children, and eventually they won. In 1912, Congress created the Children's Bureau in the Federal Department of Labor. 

William Howard Taft was president then - he signed the bill - and everyone assumed that the person who [would be] tapped to head the agency, of course, would be a man, because there was no woman who headed any federal agency at the time. But as Taft was in the middle of his deliberations, Jane Addams wired her friends and said, "Let's try to get a woman appointed head of this agency, and I have just the woman here at Hull House. It's Julia Lathrop." 

So, Jane Addams put in contention the name of Julia Lathrop. The women in her network were fully behind the idea, and they began to lobby Taft to appoint Julia Lathrop head of this new bureau. And, sure enough, he did. 

QUESTION: Why did Julia Lathrop decide to focus on infant mortality? 

ROBYN MUNCY: Julia Lathrop was a very savvy politician. When she took over the reigns of the Children's Bureau, she had a range of issues before her that she could have begun studying. She could have studied child labor, for instance, which was a very controversial issue, as you can imagine. Child labor was an issue on which Americans were very deeply divided. She decided not to start with any of the most controversial issues. She started, instead, with studies of infant and maternal mortality. Who could argue against an effort to lower the maternal and infant mortality rates? 

She began with a series of local studies that would attempt to come up with infant and maternal mortality rates in the United States. And the gist of those studies was that the U.S. had one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates of any industrialized country. 

And Julia Lathrop, with her genius for publicity and that of her reforming cohort [Addams], she began to publicize the fact that the U.S. was among the worst industrialized countries when it came to maternal and infant mortality. And, moreover, that women and children were dying of things that could have been prevented. That is, she claimed that over half of the infant deaths could have easily been prevented by proper prenatal care, and a little bit of education for the mothers of those babies. 

QUESTION: What was the outcome of Lathrop's study? 

ROBYN MUNCY: One of the outcomes, the first outcomes, of the infant and maternal mortality studies was that Lathrop was able to argue for increasing vigilance in keeping vital statistics. She's crucial to the effort to keep good birth and death records in particular. In the country at the time, there were vast areas that had no records at all, or very, very shoddy records. 

[Lathrop] would get these volunteer women to go door-to-door and knock and ask, "Have you had any babies born here in the last couple of years, are the babies still here, have the babies died, have they been sick?" [The idea was] that these women canvassers would go around and collect the best possible statistics on the birth and death rates of babies in a particular locale. 

And then they would march down to the Vital Statistics Office and compare their records with the records in the Vital Statistics Office, and always it revealed that the official statistics were wanting; that they were not being kept well at all. And then the women who had done the canvass were given a routine. They were told [that] they needed to hook up with local politicians to get laws that would require midwives and doctors and nurses and even families to report births and deaths. And, in that way, Julia Lathrop and her voluntary network improved dramatically the collection of vital statistics in the U.S. 

QUESTION: Tell me about the study's findings. 

ROBYN MUNCY: One of the most important findings of the infant and maternal mortality studies was that there was a very close correlation between a father's earnings and the infant mortality rate. That is, the more a father earned the less likely it was that children would die early on. 

Again, this is a part of the campaign to fight this notion that people were poor and suffering because of their own sin, or their own device. Here it looked like she had extremely good evidence that economic conditions had everything to do with the conditions of people's lives, even infant and maternal mortality. 

She was not, however, in a position to mount an effective campaign to increase men's wages. By the early teens, when she was doing this work, women reformers had already had their reforming agenda narrowed almost exclusively to women and children. 

So, she tries to figure out, "what is within my domain, what is within my power, what's within my gift that I could attack this problem?" And she decides eventually that the education of pregnant women and new mothers would be one of the ways that she might help to decrease infant and maternal mortality. So, she mounts an educational campaign to help women learn about the value of prenatal care, for instance, about the kind of nutrition that pregnant women need to have, the kinds of exercise, the kinds of rest that they need to have in order to have a healthy delivery. And she mounts an educational campaign about the healthiest ways to raise babies. 

QUESTION: How did Julia Lathrop get her message out to the public? 

ROBYN MUNCY: The educational campaign that Julia Lathrop first devised to try to respond to the infant and maternal mortality rate [involved] a series of pamphlets written for mothers that would help them to learn the latest information about the best ways to take care of themselves and their children. 

Those pamphlets became the most widely distributed [government-printed] pamphlets . . . in the early twentieth century. And those pamphlets were revised over time and were still going out even in the 1950s. 

[Lathrop] decided that a doctor or a nurse should not write those pamphlets, that someone who was an ordinary mother should be writing those pamphlets. Because in that way the pamphlets would be understandable, they would be accessible to the largest population of women possible. 

QUESTION: How effective was this educational campaign? What kind of criticism did it provoke? 

ROBYN MUNCY: The people who took most readily to the pamphlets and to the kinds of educational campaigns that the Children's Bureau mounted over time were clearly people who already had been inculcated with the value of expertise, people who were already in the process, at least, of giving authority to experts, rather than to their own mothers or to their next door neighbors, or even to their own experience. 

And there certainly were critics of the Children's Bureau who claimed, look, all these people who are giving us all this advice haven't had children of their own, what good are they? And in those claims you see the conflict between two senses of who has authority, whose advice is worth following, who is a legitimate expert in mothering. Is it a social scientist, is it a doctor, is it a nurse? Or is it a mother, somebody who has raised four or five children, is she the person that you should turn to for expert advice? Those two concepts of who should be the legitimate authority in child rearing were a battle throughout the early twentieth century, and for some still are. 

QUESTION: How did the Shepard-Towner Act come into being, and what did it do to combat infant and maternal mortality? 

ROBYN MUNCY: [Lathrop] decided that since education was a part of the solution to this problem, she would like to be able to provide federal funds to the states so that the states could then devise educational programs, and provide services for pregnant women and new mothers. And the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act ultimately did provide federal matching funds to the states to devise such programs. 

The states were not required to participate, so the women's political campaigns were not over with the passage of the act in 1921. Then women had to go back to their state legislatures and try to convince their state legislatures to participate in the program, that is to raise the matching funds it would take to activate Sheppard-Towner in their states. The overwhelming majority of states did participate in the end; only three states didn't participate in the course of the 1920s. The way that the act worked in most states was that the state would identify an [existing] agency that would have authority over these new programs. 

And they would usually hire a public health nurse, or a whole bevy of public health nurses, who would then be itinerant, really. Sometimes they went into certain regions on horseback, [to visit] women's clubs in the area, to ask them to try to identify with pregnant women, and women who had new babies, to get them to come to what was called a child health conference. And that meant what we would call a child health clinic. 

And while the women's clubs were identifying pregnant women and new mothers, the public health nurse would get in touch with local doctors, and ask them if they could help to serve at this child health clinic on a particular day, in this particular town. And if successful, the nurse would bring the doctor on a particular day to be there to give a full physical to the babies, to talk to pregnant women and see how they were doing, and examine them if necessary. 

The nurse would then begin another political process, which was involving the local authorities in trying to provide the funds to set up a permanent clinic [with a permanent doctor or nurse]. 

QUESTION: What tangible effect did the Sheppard-Towner Act have on infant mortality? 

ROBYN MUNCY: [T]he Children's Bureau and others did studies that showed that in the areas where the Sheppard-Towner Act was in effect, infant mortality rates fell over the course of the decade of the 1920s. So, there was a correlation between the Sheppard-Towner Act and falling infant mortality rates. There is no way for us, however, at this remove, to attribute those decreasing infant mortality rates explicitly to the Sheppard-Towner Act. 

There are lots of things that are changing in American communities in the 1920s, and we don't know what combination of factors might have been responsible for decreasing those infant mortality rates. It's clear that individual women and individual children were helped. We have anecdotal evidence, but so far as lowering massively lowering infant mortality goes, we really don't know. 

Some of the other trends that might have been responsible or contributing to the decrease in infant and maternal mortality in the 1920s would include things like increasing real wages - over which, of course, the Children's Bureau had no effect at all. Increasing urbanization might have had some effect as well, the increasing availability of medical care. There are lots of trends that might have contributed to lowering mortality rates.


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