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The Settlement-House Movement

The Settlement-House Movement


Settling in Urban Neighborhoods. During the 1880s and 1890s newly arrived immigrants faced a difficult struggle to earn a living wage, and cities offered little in the way of tangible aid. The urban neighborhoods in which these immigrants lived were filled with overcrowded tenements that lacked kitchens and bathrooms. Tenants drew water at a sink or pump in the hallway and used unsanitary privies in the basement. The settlement-house movement was established to help immigrants and the working poor. Settlement houses helped newcomers adapt to American life and customs by providing job placement and training, citizenship classes, legal aid, health services, child care, public kitchens, cultural programs, and classes on subjects such as nutrition and parenting. Springing up in most major cities, settlement houses were staffed mainly by educated middle-class white women who settled among the people they helped. The movement was not financed by government funds and depended solely on the labor of charitable women and men. The first settlement house in the United States was Jane Addamss Hull-House, founded in 1889. Many others quickly followed. In 1893 Lillian Wald opened the Henry Street Settlement in New York City, and graduates of Wellesley College opened Denison House in Boston. By 1900 there were some one hundred settlement houses nationwide.

Activist Women. At the same time that new immigrants were flooding into American cities, more and more American colleges and universities were beginning to open their doors to women. In 1870 about eleven thousand women, mostly middle-class and white, were enrolled in institutions of higher education; by 1880 there were roughly forty thousand. Female graduates pioneered the field of social work. Many women in this field started their professional careers as staff members at settlement houses, forming professional networks within the movement. The movement also drew in lesseducated middle-class women who were concerned about the poor and felt a personal need to help them.

Becoming Political. The settlement-house movement was part widespread political impulse for national self-improvement, or progressivism. Whereas settlement-house workers at first believed that introducing art, music, and the humanities to the poor would uplift them from their degradation, the hardships of the economic crisis of 1893 and 1894 caused the workers to seek more practical ways to end suffering. For example, Hull-House joined with the Illinois Womens Alliance, an organization of working-class and middle-class women, to convince the Illinois legislature to pass protective legislation for working women and children. Many women who were clients or staff members at settlement houses gained a political education there and went on to participate in the labor movement, civic-reform organizations, and national party politics.


Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981);

Barbara Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).

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