Organization Among Women
Considered with Respect to Philanthropy
May 1893 — World’s Congress of Representative Women, Chicago World’s Fair, Chicago IL
Read by Harriot Taylor Upton
A word first of all with regard to organization in philanthropic work, leaving women out of the question. Religion and education, between which philanthropy has its logical place in this programme, have been recognized always as great organizing forces in human development.
It is only very recently that philanthropy has deserved to be so recognized. Tradition and a perverse interpretation of detached scriptural texts seemed to have established a permanent lawlessness in the region of charity, and every man did, in alms-deed, what seemed to him right in his own eyes. Love is not in itself a disorganizing force, and yet the expression of it has been placed more and more, as civilization advanced, under restraints the most sacred and inviolable. That particular form of love which we call, for lack of a better name, “philanthropy” needs, like all other forms, to be strengthened and deepened by restraint, by enlightened self-denial, by coöperation, by organization. In what follows I am compelled, for lack of time, to take the value of such coöperation and organization largely for granted.
In casting about for the causes which have broadened women’s charitable activities, one of the most important seems to me the new classification of charities a classification which will be a distinguishing mark of the century so rapidly drawing to a close. Within these hundred years, for the first time in human history, the criminal, the prostitute, the insane, the vagrant, the idiotic, and all other defective classes have become objects of care and solicitude, not only to the individual philanthropist, but, through him, to the State. In the most civilized communities there are still survivals of our old carelessness and inhumanity, but these survivals are doomed. With this tendency to include many things in the list of charities which were not before so classified, has appeared a counter tendency to exclude a large class of the higher educational charities — to call them charities no longer. Now, they resent, and rightly resent, this classification. Many of the higher forms of helpfulness will not allow the word “charity” to be associated with their work.
But the new dispensation has included on the one hand far more than it has excluded on the other; and this inclusion has multiplied many-fold the number of new institutions and the sum of public and private charitable expenditure. The increasing complexity of our charitable system brought about an artificial division of labor between the sexes. Men monopolized official and impersonal service, women cared for the private and more personal side of the work. For many years the women of our country contented themselves with private efforts in homes for children, in hospitals, and in relief societies. In some States this still is all that they attempt to do, and even here their work is supplemented frequently by “advisory boards ” of men, who take charge of the financial investments, and lend to the institutions an air of respectable solidity. This is a transition stage. Advancing civilization demands that official charity shall become more and more personal; and the increasing responsibilities placed upon them require, on the part of our private charities, more practical and business-like methods. Individual women like Dorothea Dix, Josephine Shaw Lowell, and Katie Fay, who concerned themselves with the larger issues of official relief, not with the aim of “advancing the cause of women,” or with any aim, however worthy, which was aside from the main issue of effecting the specific reforms which they had in view — individual women like these have proved, with single-hearted devotion, their ability to administer public charitable trusts. Such examples were instructive, and as other women showed a devoted interest in the work, they were appointed in a number of States to official positions which gave them a voice in the management of public institutions for women and children. The higher education of women is destined to play an important part in the future of public and private charities. Charitable work in the future will demand a trained mind and an intimate knowledge of social science and economics. Good intentions are no longer the only essential of philanthropic leadership; in this, as in all departments of serious work, the best of good intentions will not be good enough until we have patiently learned before we attempt to teach. The social science departments of our universities offer to women the best possible training for a useful and honorable career.
Two years ago a committee of the National Conference of Charities and Correction — a gathering where women have received equal recognition with men for twenty years — sent letters of inquiry to all the States and Territories about the philanthropic work of women. From the replies received I gather the following facts: In six States women serve with men as members of State boards of charities, having supervision of State charitable institutions; in eleven States women have a semi-official recognition, being appointed by the legislatures or the courts to visit and report upon certain institutions; in fifteen other States women are reported as taking a very prominent part in the administration of private charities; in eleven States their administrative functions, both private and public, are reported to be very limited.
The line of probable development is indicated by these returns. It must be a question of only a little time when women will be actively engaged in every department of charitable activity, and not even a special tag can then indicate what percentage of the glory is theirs in a work done side by side with men. In the South, where their progress has been most tardy, they are beginning to take a more intelligent interest in problems of pauperism and crime.
The existence in any community of a group of women who care intensely to make things better, and who know how to do so, will bring them their opportunity. The true open sesame for women everywhere, as it seems to me, is simply this, “I am ready.”
Are women to have any monopoly of philanthropy in the future? By no means. The division of labor will no longer be a question of sex, but of capacity. I know men, and am proud to know them, who think it only a small part of their duty as citizens to sit upon boards and vote away charitable cash; who are not content when they have sent their checks upon the bank to the various charities in which they are interested; but who contrive to take some time from busy days for personal service in the homes of the needy; who know and care for individual cases of weakness, temptation, and misfortune. If we have ever believed that it was woman’s peculiar function to be a ministering angel, we have learned better. Men of the younger generation in our large cities are realizing more and more the pressing need and the privileges of personal service.
There is always danger that women may hope for larger results from the more attractive, “poetic” charities, as some one has called them, than the facts warrant. The vicious and the idle were too long neglected for the more lovable classes of dependents; and one can not put too great emphasis upon the importance of prompt and thorough treatment of neglected evils which are a continual menace to society. All the wisdom of men and women both is needed to cope with the difficulties of institutional life and management. Wherever imbecile women are allowed to become mothers in our almshouses, we need both men and women — the wisest and most devoted — to prevent this crime. Wherever vagrants are permitted to use our poor-houses as temporary retreats to recover from one debauch before beginning another, we need both men and women women to enforce compulsory educational work.
Wherever juvenile reformatories, so called, are made the feeders of our prisons, we need both men and women to reform these reformatories. Wherever little children are kept in large institutions until they become hopelessly unfit for the battle of life, we need both men and women to place them in country and childless homes, where their young lives may be replanted in a healthful soil.
Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, ed. May Wright Sewall (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Company) 1894, pp. 254-258.