Simkhovitch, Mary (1867–1951)

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Simkhovitch, Mary (1867–1951)

American social reformer. Born Mary Melinda Kingsbury on September 8, 1867, in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts; died on November 15, 1951, in New York City; daughter of Isaac Franklin Kingsbury andLaura (Holmes) Kingsbury; Boston University, B.A., 1890, elected to Phi Beta Kappa; graduate study at Harvard Annex (later Radcliffe College), University of Berlin, and Columbia University; married Vladimir Gregorievitch Simkhovitch (an economics professor), in January 1899; children: Stephen (b. 1902); Helena (b. 1904).

Selected writings:

The City Worker's World (1917); Neighborhood: My Story of Greenwich House (1938); Group Life (1940); Here is God's Plenty (1949).

A key figure in the settlement house movement during the first half of the 20th century, Mary Simkhovitch founded the Association of Neighborhood Workers in 1901. The following year, she established Greenwich House, which under her 45 years of guidance became a primary influence in the settlement house movement.

Born on September 8, 1867, in the affluent Chestnut Hill suburb of Boston, Mary Melinda Kingsbury graduated from Newton High School in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1886. She chose to attend nearby Boston University, where she became a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and graduated with a B.A. in 1890. During her college years, as the leader of a group for teenaged girls at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, she first encountered "slum" life, which galvanized her interest in housing reform. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg notes that this experience taught Simkhovitch an elemental principle of social reform: "Before any help can be given the situation must be felt, realized and understood at first hand," she wrote. "Only that which is lived can be understood and translated to others."

After graduating from college, Simkhovitch taught high school Latin in Somerville, Massachusetts, for two years, before resigning due to her lack of patience with grading papers and instructing remedial students. In 1892, she began graduate work at the all-female Harvard Annex (later Radcliffe College), where she studied medieval history, philosophy, and sociology. Then, with the help of a scholarship from the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, she went to the University of Berlin, escorted by her mother. While in Berlin, she met Vladimir Gregorievitch Simkhovitch, whom she would marry in 1899; between academic terms, she also visited Italy, Paris, and London, where she remained to attend the International Socialist Trade Union Congress. Although she did further graduate work in sociology, economics, and history at Columbia University upon her return to America, she was anxious to apply her education to practical issues related to urban life and industrialization. She left school in 1897 to live at the College Settlement House on New York City's Lower East Side, where she was a mentor to the teenaged Eleanor Roosevelt , then a volunteer teacher at the house. Wanting to experience the changing face of urban America firsthand, Simkhovitch became head resident and learned Yiddish so she could communicate with the area's Jewish immigrants.

After a year, she accepted a position of chief resident at the Friendly Aid House. Her experience there differed markedly from that of the nonsectarian College Settlement House, which not only had been bolder in its approach to solving housing and other community-based problems, but had encouraged a cooperative spirit with the neighborhood residents. Because the Friendly Aid House was church-supported, it considered the project a charity and emphasized religious inculcation; it was also more restrictive in its policies. This prompted Simkhovitch in 1901 to found a settlement house that would incorporate the values and methods she considered most important. Under Simkhovitch's direction, Greenwich House became a premiere settlement within the movement and was responsible for numerous important studies on such social issues as slum housing, unemployment, racism, and immigrant groups. Simkhovitch encouraged broader social reform and envisioned the settlement as an impetus for unity within the community. Donations from local philanthropists enabled Simkhovitch to create the Greenwich Village Cultural Association, which then established Greenwich House as a center of cultural activity in the neighborhood. She created neighborhood meeting places, theater programs, and recreational undertakings to bring the community together in cultural and social pursuits. The settlement had the support of such prominent figures as John Dewey, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacob Riis, and Felix Adler, and later residents included writer Zona Gale and social reformer Frances Perkins . In a biographical excerpt in Women of Valor, Simkhovitch discusses her utilization of various national and local governmental programs to accommodate Greenwich House's weekly attendance which had doubled to nearly 10,000 people during the height of the Great Depression.

Simkhovitch worked alongside other social reformers and settlement house leaders, becoming active within the housing-reform movement and the Outdoor Recreation League. Her prominence in the movement became such that she was elected president of the National Federation of Settlements in 1917. Although deeply involved with all activities of Greenwich House, Simkhovitch also maintained a rigorous schedule of activities beyond its borders. She was instrumental in the 1907 founding of the Committee on the Congestion of Population, having witnessed all the evils associated with overcrowded housing. Active in politics, Simkhovitch served on the Mayor's Public Recreation Commission in 1911, on the executive board of the National Consumers' League starting in 1917, and was a member of the New York City Recreation Committee in 1925. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia recognized her effectiveness as an advocate and administrator by appointing her vice chair of the New York City Housing Authority in 1934.

On the national level, Simkhovitch spoke on behalf of Theodore Roosevelt in the 1912 presidential campaign and championed the cause of women's suffrage. Her lifelong efforts in public housing reform attracted her to the New Deal policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Successful in adding a provision for the first federally funded low-income public housing to the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, she achieved another legislative victory in her drafting of the public housing bill that became the Wagner-Stea-gall Housing Act of 1937.

Although Simkhovitch continued her active involvement in the New York City Housing Authority, in 1946 she retired from the directorship of Greenwich House, where she died on November 15, 1951.


Block, Maxine, ed. Current Biography 1943. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1943.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Sternsher, Bernard, and Judith Sealander, eds. Women of Valor. Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 1990.

Stroup, Herbert. Social Welfare Pioneers. Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall, 1986.

Howard Gofstein , freelance writer, Detroit, Michigan