Today In Fact, 29 June

In 2008 I had the opportunity to visit Chicago and while walking to deliver a paper at the University of Illinois in Chicago, I passed an old, well preserved house. It was Hull House and a sign outside it proclaimed that social work in America had its roots in the work done at Hull House.

Social Work has many roots. In Britain, Victorian social work was the result of the new Evangelical spirit combining with an increasing professionalism of approach. The industrialisation of Britain had rendered the old ad hoc systems of social support desperately inadequate, and while the Workhouse offered a bitter relief it was constantly under pressure from those who wanted to make it even less attractive to the poor.

Elizabeth Fry’s prison visiting established the leadership position of women doing social work. Wealthy women in particular often began projects and initiatives working directly with the poor while at the same time advocating for systemic changes in society.

In the United States, a group of wealthy lesbians in Chicago kick-started social work. Led by Jane Addams, the group bought Hull House in a slum area of Chicago in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Hull House became a model for what is known as “Settlement Houses”. The settlement house movement was an exercise in radical solidarity. A group of women, often from wealthy families, would buy a house in a slum area and live among the poor. Services and programmes would be offered to women and children and the settlement houses became safe places in the midst of poverty and vice.

Within a few years there were over 400 settlement houses in cities around the USA. The women who ran these projects were usually childless and unmarried. One notable champion of the Settlement House Movement , was Julia Lathrop whose birthday today in 1858 we may celebrate.

Miss Lathrop joined Hull House in the 1890’s. Lathrop ran a discussion group called the Plato Club in the early days of the House. The women at Hull House actively campaigned to persuade Congress to pass legislation to protect children. The combination of direct work with the poor and advocacy has become a defining feature of professional social work.

The next step was to get the state to directly employ social workers. Hull House was the first to achieve this development in social work when in 1893 Miss Lathrop was appointed as the first ever woman member of the Illinois State Board of Charities, beginning her lifelong work in civil service reform. Miss Lathrop was however working on a State Board and the women at Hull House wanted a national presence.

Reacting to pressure from progressive women reformers for the appointment of a woman for the newly created Children’s Bureau, in 1912 President William Taft appointed Miss Lathrop as its first bureau chief. Over the next nine years until 1922, Miss Lathrop directed research into child labour, infant mortality, maternal mortality, juvenile delinquency, mothers’ pensions and illegitimacy.

In 2012, the Hull House Settlement was closed down and its staff made redundant. The state now runs the programmes that it initiated.

What is interesting is the process of a profound Christian initiative to work with the poor and oppressed being adopted by a group of wealthy women who also advocated for social transformation and human rights using a model of radical solidarity. This mix of direct work with the poor and advocacy by women with wealth, education and influence, who themselves were part of an oppressed group due to their sexual orientation is instructive.

This group of pioneer social workers advocated for state incorporation of welfare programmes leading to the slow and progressive adoption of the programmes by local and national state bodies which eventually made the initial projects redundant.

Is this process of the state colonizing the innovative work of passionate groups and non-governmental agencies inevitable and desirable? Miss Lathrop thought so.

– Posted by Douglas Racionzer (