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Fallen Women, Problem Girls

Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890-1945

Regina G. Kunzel
Copyright Date: 1993
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 276
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  • Book Info
    Fallen Women, Problem Girls
    Book Description:

    During the first half of the twentieth century, out-of-wedlock pregnancy came to be seen as one of the most urgent and compelling problems of the day. The effort to define its meaning fueled a struggle among three groups of women: evangelical reformers who regarded unmarried mothers as fallen sisters to be saved, a new generation of social workers who viewed them as problem girls to be treated, and unmarried mothers themselves. Drawing on previously unexamined case records from maternity homes, Regina Kunzel explores how women negotiated the crisis of single pregnancy and analyzes the different ways they understood and represented unmarried motherhood.Fallen Women, Problem Girlsis a social and cultural history of out-of-wedlock pregnancy in the United States from 1890 to 1945. Kunzel analyzes how evangelical women drew on a long tradition of female benevolence to create maternity homes that would redeem and reclaim unmarried mothers. She shows how, by the 1910s, social workers struggling to achieve professional legitimacy tried to dissociate their own work from that earlier tradition, replacing the reform rhetoric of sisterhood with the scientific language of professionalism. By analyzing the important and unexplored transition from the conventions of nineteenth-century reform to the professional imperatives of twentieth-century social welfare, Kunzel offers a new interpretation of gender and professionalization. Kunzel places shifting constructions of out-of-wedlock pregnancy within a broad history of gender, sexuality, class, and race, and argues that the contests among evangelical women, social workers, and unmarried mothers distilled larger generational and cross-class conflicts among women in the first half of the twentieth century.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16062-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    In 1919, social worker J. Prentice Murphy called on these melodramatic words by British reformer Albert Leffingwell to represent the unmarried mother. Shrinking against the “background of history,” she was a timeless figure who resisted description and eluded understanding. But even as Murphy wrote, he and his colleagues were refiguring unmarried motherhood from a transhistorical inevitability to one of the most compelling and urgent “problems” of the day. Struggling to discover its “causes,” reformers and social workers rushed to fill in the explanatory gaps suggested by the unmarried mother’s alleged “muteness,” the “indescribability” of her sadness, and the “unutterability” of...

  6. 1 The Maternity Home Movement
    (pp. 9-35)

    Kate Waller Barrett often told the story of how she was first called to rescue work with unmarried mothers. Late one night, a young woman came to see Barrett’s husband, a minister. The woman had been out all night and arrived at the Barretts’ doorstep cold and wet, “clasping in her arms a fatherless child.” After inviting her in and talking with her, Barrett was moved by the deep bond she felt with the woman and struck by their essential similarity. “She, too, was a country girl. She, too, had loved, but alas! for her, she had loved unwisely while...

  7. 2 The New Experts and the “Girl Problem”
    (pp. 36-64)

    A few years after her first encounter with an unmarried mother, Kate Waller Barrett became president of the National Florence Crittenton Mission and the many homes under its auspices. In 1908, Barrett boasted that “if any organization today wants to know anything about the condition of unfortunate girls … they send to the headquarters of the nfcm.”¹ The early-twentieth-century antiprostitution crusade and the First World War focused national attention on illegitimacy, boosting the confidence of evangelicals and galvanizing public support for maternity homes. In the 1910s and 1920s, when “everywhere throughout the country the great problem of illegitimacy is confronting...

  8. 3 The “Secret Sisterhood”: Unmarried Mothers in Maternity Homes
    (pp. 65-90)

    In 1900, Kate Barrett narrated the story of the admission of a new “inmate” into a maternity home. A resident of the home first showed her into the drawing room, where she found “every evidence of the fact that this is a true home—God’s home,” in which “the very atmosphere of love seems to breathe forth.” She was then greeted by the matron, who began not by asking “a long string of questions” but by simply inquiring “‘can I be of any help to you?’” In a few moments, Barrett wrote, “touched by the tenderness of her tone, the...

  9. 4 “Problem Girls”: Docility and Dissidence in Maternity Homes
    (pp. 91-114)

    Of her stay at the Lakeview maternity home on Staten Island, one young woman wrote, “‘though to all this is a home, to some it is a prison as well, because we are not here of our own choice.’”¹ In a sentence, she captured the ambiguity inherent in the quasi-voluntary, quasi-coercive nature of charitable maternity homes, as well as in the hierarchical arrangement of power in those homes. She was probably no less resourceful than many women who struggled to put maternity homes to their own purposes. Yet those efforts were bounded by the place unmarried mothers occupied in homes...

  10. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  11. 5 “Case Workers Have Become Necessities”
    (pp. 115-143)

    Previous chapters have introduced different sets of social actors—evangelical women, social workers, and unmarried mothers—each eager to articulate competing “truths” of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and each resting those truths on different sources of authority. Evangelical women cited religious calling and female mission, and unmarried mothers claimed the authority of experience. By the early twentieth century, however, social workers invoked the legitimizing rhetoric of science to brand evangelical women’s tradition of womanly benevolence sentimental and sloppy, to pronounce unmarried mothers untrustworthy interpreters of their own experience, and to name themselves the rightful authorities over the “social problem” of unmarried motherhood....

  12. 6 White Neurosis, Black Pathology, and the Ironies of Professionalization: The 1940s
    (pp. 144-170)

    In September of 1941, Robert South Barrett sent out a warning to Crittenton workers: “I think it necessary that I should raise the storm signal to our Homes in the same way the Weather Bureau raises one at the approach of a hurricane,” he wrote. “We are facing a very serious time, and I beg you to make plans now to meet a situation that is fraught with many dangers.”¹ These dangers—“the lure of uniforms, the emotional disturbances produced by men being taken away from their usual habitats, the assembling of large numbers of men in military camps”—were...

  13. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 171-172)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 173-232)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 233-258)
  16. Index
    (pp. 259-264)