How Women Saved the City

September 10, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: The book is “How Women Saved the City.” It tells a little known story of a key period in the history of the American city and women’s growing public re at the turn of the 20th century. Author Daphne Spain is a professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia. Implicit in your book’s title and, of course, copiously told in the book itself is this idea that the city needed saving. What did it need saving from?

DAPHNE SPAIN: It was a pretty chaotic time as the nation was undergoing industrialization. People were moving from farms into cities, and there were a number of newcomers or strangers that were entering cities. So we had European immigrants arriving. We had large numbers of African-Americans coming from the South into mid western and northeastern cities. And there was a group of women who were learning to earn their own way independently of their families. They were called women adrift – a-d-r–f-t — because they seemed to be a new category. They were not within their typical families status that was expected of women at the time. And then there were also these women volunteers that were a type of newcomer to the city. And those were the one that I was writing about, the ones who created places.

RAY SUAREZ: What were the institutions that we created this time by the women who were these volunteers?

DAPHNE SPAIN: The YWCA created a number of boarding houses and vocational schools to teach women how to become type writers. That’s what they were called at the time. The women themselves were called type writers. The National Association of Colored Women also created vocational schools with domestic skills and so liberal arts skills for African-American women. And the Salvation Army had a number of hotels and rescue homes for fallen women, women who were prostitutes or unwed mothers and trying to get off the streets. So the range of facilities included both lodging, as in the boarding homes and hotels for the Salvation Army and the settlement houses and the YWCA and the NACW. And they provided places for meals. They provided places for bathing, as I mentioned the public baths — and playgrounds as well. So these were… I call them redemptive places because they served as a way station for newcomers to learn how to become urban Americans.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, why were this class of women that you write about, saving the city, why were they particularly poised at that moment in history to sort of rush in and create a whole voluntary sector?

DAPHNE SPAIN: There were several things going on. Women did not have the vote at the time — the enfranchisement. So middle class women and working class women, both white and African-American women, had very few avenues outside of the home other than voluntary associations and religious work through the church. And when those combined as they did in some of the organizations I studied like the Young Women’s Christian Association and the Salvation Army, it gave them ways to establish public identities through creating actual places in the city, where they came into contact with strangers, where the helped assimilate immigrants, where they helped young women find jobs, where they helped kids stay off the streets in playgrounds.

RAY SUAREZ: Many of the institutions you write about end up taking care of tens of thousands of families. They become enormous institutions — and almost a parallel women’s realm inside the city.

DAPHNE SPAIN: I think that it’s a parallel but inter-woven at the same time because when we think about the era of urbanization, the real city building era between the Civil War and World War I, we know about the sky scrapers, we know about magnificent projects like Central Park, but we don’t know that much about the settlement houses that were in the lower East side to help immigrants assimilate. We don’t know about public baths where people had to go on a daily or weekly basis because they had no running water in their tenements. We tend to disregard playgrounds and yet they were very important spaces in between these other places. So, they were parallel but also integrated into the fabric of the city in a way that facilitated the work of cities at the time, and the work of cities 100 years ago was to assimilate strangers and to move from an agricultural into an industrial economy.

RAY SUAREZ: But to the teeming slums of immigrants on Hallstead Street in Chicago or the lower East side in New York, the fact that women volunteers were visiting their apartments was much more significant and much more tangible than the fact that the Woolworth’s building was going up downtown.

DAPHNE SPAIN: I like to think so. That’s what I was looking for when I started the research. The Salvation Army had a special brigade of women who were called Slum Sisters. And they went into homes and did things as mundane as feeding children, making tea, preparing people o be buried actually because there were no funeral parlors and immigrants had very little money to be able to do that. So the Slum Sisters were doing absolute daily routine tasks that had to be done in the immigrants’ homes, say. In settlement houses, the reason they were called settlement workers is that they went into the neighborhood and settled there as a way to promote some neighborhood change. The settlement workers were somewhat radical by the standards of the day.

RAY SUAREZ: So there were some groups that were more paternalistic, more condescending and some who suffered along with their charges in effect?

DAPHNE SPAIN: Well, there’s a large literature on settlement house workers that claims they were paternalistic and they were simply trying to foist their middle class white values on European immigrants. And that may have been part of the program but there was also part of it that was motivated by the social gospel by an attention to poverty as a public issue rather than a personal failing of individuals.

RAY SUAREZ: What is the social gospel?

DAPHNE SPAIN: The social gospel was a Protestant theology, very activist theology at the turn of the century that encouraged people to go out and become involved in changing poverty- ridden neighborhoods and changing social structure as opposed to trying to save the individual so that the Salvation Army was more evangelical. It was not associated with the social gospel. It didn’t have that progressive reform agenda that the social gospel advocates did. But the two combined working in tandem or in parallel at the same time had the effect of imposing a fairly religious agenda on the nation, as it was becoming a more secular nation ironically. So I think that was a transition era.

RAY SUAREZ: So here we are a century later, new big cities are growing up in America. We’re arguing about thee of the religious and the secular realm.


RAY SUAREZ: And also assimilating a large number of immigrants again.

DAPHNE SPAIN: Exactly, exactly. And the redemptive places that I identified from 100 years, the settlement houses and boarding schools and vocational schools and such were important because they were actual a spaces that people could gather together and they represented the types of issues that were most important to the day. They were religiously motivated then. And we have charitable choice as a provision of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act now. It’s quite controversial, certainly. And President Bush’s faith-based initiatives I see as taking us almost full circle back to where voluntary efforts originated 100 years ago.

RAY SUAREZ: The book again is “How Women Saved the City.” Daphne Spain, thanks for being with us.

DAPHNE SPAIN: Thank you.