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Social Work and Social Order: The Settlement Movement in Two Industrial Cities, 1889-1930.

While historians have long considered the American settlement house a model of Progressive era reform, they have disagreed on its meaning: as reform, feminist historians most especially have cited it as the harbinger of forward-looking New Deal social policy; as social control, New Left historians have argued it helped affect the transition to corporate monopoly capitalism. In the more meliorist vein, social welfare historians have tended to see the settlement house movement, warts and all, as the last best hope of social work before it was professionalized in the 1920s. In prevailing histories of social work, pre-war settlements represent a more humane, socially-engaged era of social work, the field's halcyon days before detached (and male) professionalism takes over in the 1920s. Ruth Hutchinson Crocker's social history of three settlement houses in Indianapolis and another four in Gary, Indiana, skillfully engages, and in significant ways, forces a revision of several prevailing tenets concerning the fundamental character of the American settlement house movement.

Crocker powerfully argues that the assumptions surrounding the meaning of the settlements have been based on an atypical group of extraordinary experiences and women. Most of the judgments about path breaking Progressive-era social policy have relied, she notes, on studies of the women giants--like Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop, etc.--who led the more famous Chicago, New York, Boston and Philadelphia settlements. Crocker believes there is quite a different story to be told elsewhere.

To begin, Crocker suggests that the histories of "second tier" settlements, such as those which exist in middle-sized cities like Gary and Indianapolis, are more typical of American settlements generally than are those of their more famous big-city sister institutions. And, as her title suggests, on balance, she argues that central to these settlements is the relationship between social control and social order. Settlement leaders and clients did provide opportunities for "reform"--programs for job training, language skills and improvements in housing, for example. In Gary and Indianapolis, however, these were limited ventures. The "more important question," Crocker recognizes, is "why American reform movements have challenged, but have usually been unable to alter, existing structures of economic and political power." (9)

Crocker's answer is that these settlements were, in fact, fundamentally conservative institutions which did not break with late nineteenth-century traditions of charity work as represented by the Charity Organization Society (COS). Evidence from Indianapolis, Crocker suggests, "shows that the difference between the COS and the settlements has been overstated." Settlement "preoccupations" remain "social control as well as social reform." (46-47)

Four areas--religion, Americanization, race and feminism--are seen to reflect both the conservative tenor of these Progressive-era settlements and the reform impulses which the author still finds percolating through. First, instead of the secular "cosmopolitanism associated with the Hull House model," Crocker finds religious faith and institutions, both Protestant and Catholic, motivating many settlement workers and shaping institutional policy in line with Church ambitions, whether it be to combat anti-clericalism or fight off socialism. The Social Gospel plays a larger role in these settlements than does "social science." (212-13)

Second, Crocker's settlement workers "were not cultural pluralists, but missionaries for the American Way." (213) Clients could learn some useful educational skills in house programs and enjoy the playgrounds, but Crocker demonstrates how cultural diversity in ethnic traditions was always made subordinate to political conformity. In places like Gary where U.S. Steel, which provided much of the funding for the settlements, was locked in struggles with steel workers, trade-union organizing or socialism could never pass the political test. (In fact, U.S. Steel's omnipresence in Gary settlement life undoubtedly shaped the typicality of those houses.)

Third, Crocker also includes the story of Gary's Stewart House, a black settlement "controlled by conservative black and white elites" which, she concludes "nevertheless became [an] effective reform institution." (215) "White" settlements such as Indianapolis' Christamore tried to flee from black populations, while two other white-run houses tried to serve their needs, albeit to minimal effect. But black self-help constitutes a significant and little known part of the settlement reform tradition.

Four, Social Work and Social Order contests the history of "Progressive-era settlements as feminist institutions." Again, the stories of such settlement heroines as Jane Addams, Florence Kelley and Lillian Wald are shown to be atypical. In these Midwest towns, neither long residences nor careers without marriage characterized the typical settlement leader. Moreover, the nurturing female communities of residents were, at most, a short-lived moment in the history of a few settlements. Men soon filled leadership posts. In fact, Crocker finds evangelical reform but little "feminist reform" in these houses. "Material feminism" of nurseries, day care, etc., existed, but like protective legislation, it served to reinforce "femininity, not feminism," to encourage traditional roles and attitudes about women as mothers. (217)

While Crocker's study of each of these areas provides a healthy corrective to the existing settlement house literature, they also serve her larger argument about the essentially conservative nature of the settlement house movement. The "long term-goal" of the settlements, she concludes, "was to speed the proletarianization of the newcomers into an undifferentiated working class." (220) Noting the strong links between business and the settlements, and the absence of any trade-union presence in both cities, she places the movement back into the "historiographic mainstream of early-twentieth-century reform," in the tradition of James Weinstein, Gabriel Kolko and Robert Weibe.

Finally, Crocker's account also seeks to revise the conventional account of social work history which contrasts the conservative professionalism of the 1920s and 1930s with Progressive-era settlement activism. For Crocker, the self-help tradition of these charity-organization settlements provides more continuity than discontinuity with what comes later.

Unfortunately, on the post-war history of social work, a period actually beyond her own evidence, I would differ with Crocker. Conservative hegemony may exist in social welfare history, as Crocker finds in the era she studies, but it is of course never uncontested. Crocker realizes this well, and, in fact, bends over backwards (sometimes even a bit excessively) to find client agency in Americanizing programs, "reform" in the retrograde black settlement. But what is advanced as professionalism in the post-war era is similarly contested, both by workers and clients. While Crocker demonstrates the continuities in the history of the settlement house movement, we need further study of the considerably different institutional settings and work which mark the histories of settlements and post-war social service agencies. Social Work and Social Order provides a first-rate basis for that comparison.

Daniel J. Walkowitz New York University
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Author:Walkowitz, Daniel J.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1994
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