Suzanne Morton, Wisdom, Justice, and Charity: Canadian Social Welfare Through the Life of Jane B. Wisdom, 1884-1975.
IN THIS EVOCATIVE, thoughtfully crafted, and engagingly written political biography of social worker Jane Wisdom, Suzanne Morton traces the large historical processes of liberal welfare state expansion and the professionalization of social work through the life and career of one individual woman. Born in 1884 in Saint John, New Brunswick, educated at McGill University, and trained in casework in New York City, Wisdom's social work career spanned national boundaries and was intricately tied to a number of extraordinary political moments in North American history. At various points in her life, Wisdom participated in the settlement house and charity organization movement, witnessed the impact of both world wars and the Great Depression, and worked within the framework of expanding state responsibility for social welfare. Her death in 1975 came just as the welfare state began to decline in the face of global neoliberalism.
Given that Wisdom was neither a politician nor a particularly influential policy maker (unlike her more well-known contemporary Charlotte Whitton), the structure of a historical biography raises a number of methodological challenges. Well-known figures with a strong sense of their historical role generally leave voluminous, detailed, and comprehensive archival records. By all accounts, Wisdom was reluctant to write herself into welfare state history, often downplaying her work and deliberately staying under the public radar. Furthermore, Wisdom's life was marked by economic precarity as an unmarried and low-paid working woman from a large and financially struggling family. As a result, she worked and lived at various times in Montreal, Halifax, New York City, Halifax, and Glace Bay. The constantly changing conditions of her employment, her mobility across provincial and national borders, and the way her life was lived in a liminal space between public and private make tracing her life story a difficult endeavour. Morton observes early in the introduction that the process of researching and writing a historical biography, which rests on patiently and painstakingly finding, assessing, and assembling the fragments of a subject's life story into a coherent narrative, closely echoes the casework method itself.
The resulting book is a sensitive and in-depth public biography that eschews speculation about Wisdom's personal life in favour of a nuanced assessment of how her work and professional identity intersected with larger developments in the Canadian welfare state. The strength of this approach rests in the way that Morton successfully pulls out the details of Wisdom's life trajectory while understanding her as part of larger local, national, and international communities, including extended family, friendships, and professional, educational, and religious networks. While biography can never fully capture the subject's motivations, interiority, or historical significance, the genre's structure is an important reminder that the boundaries of both individual life stories and of traditional historical narratives are messy and difficult to contain. Morton's close analysis of Wisdom's work and life demonstrates that the ideological distinctions between social democracy and liberalism were rarely neat or binary, that the transition of social welfare provision from a charity to a rights-based model was not linear, and that welfare state policy could be both frustrating bureaucratic and responsive to local needs. The chapter on Wisdom's time in Glace Bay between 1940 and 1952 nicely captures these complexities, showing how her work as a municipal welfare administrator meant that she worked within imposed and bureaucratic strictures while carefully supporting the 1947 miners' strike and working to eliminate inadequate municipally financed poor relief.
This biography of Wisdom adds nuance to a robust Canadian welfare state historiography. Historians have published widely on welfare policy development, the intersection of policy with class and gender inequality, and organized and grassroots responses to poverty. But there is little historical research on the lives of the individuals who developed, studied, and administered the programs and policies of the welfare state. As Morton eloquently demonstrates, welfare policies were enacted not solely by large, bureaucratic organizations but also by individuals who were shaped by bureaucratic and hierarchical systems and by cultural, religious, political, and philosophical values. Influenced by Anglo-Protestant values of service, obligation, and religious faith, for example, Wisdom's liberalism was tempered by an ethos of collective responsibility for the well-being of families, communities, and citizens. Morton's analysis of Wisdom's life, her ideological formation, and the system in which she lived and worked is simultaneously a nuanced critique of the limits of the expanded liberal welfare state and an empathetic assessment of the life of one woman who helped to build and administer it.
Wisdom's personal and professional mobility allows Morton to provide a series of case studies in welfare state formation in multiple locations, tracing a process of historical change that is both geographically precise and transnational in scope. Morton carefully tracks the personal and professional connections between Wisdom and her friends, mentors, and colleagues, showing how social workers were influenced by progressive trends in Canada, Great Britain, and the United States. Wisdom and her contemporaries travelled back and forth between Canada and the United States for education, training, and work, suggesting that historians of social welfare should pay close attention to transnational connections in the development of social work theory and practice. In particular, Wisdom was deeply influenced by the British and American settlement house movement; she lived for a short time in a settlement house in New York's Lower East Side and was one of the first residents in the Montreal settlement which opened in 1910. Wisdom also trained with the famous casework specialist Mary Richmond in New York City. In the midst of this larger transnational context, however, Morton never loses the place-based importance of Wisdom's deep professional and familial connections to the Maritimes and Montreal, the places where she spent the majority of her life. The thoughtful analysis of Wisdom's education at McGill University and her ties to the Anglo-Protestant community of Montreal adds an important dimension to the complex history of social service and welfare state development in Quebec, a history shaped by linguistic inequalities and institutionalized religious differences. Good welfare state history, as Morton adeptly demonstrates, is the history of women, labour, class formation, urban development, religion, region, and the nation state. Wisdom, Justice, and Charity is an invaluable book for historians in these fields and for social work educators and practitioners seeking a nuanced history of the relationship between social workers and clients, communities, policies, and the state.
Simon Fraser University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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