Dear listener, we’ve got a special episode for you today. Our producer, Elizabeth Garner Masarik, just published her first book,  The Sentimental State: How Women-Led Reform Built the American Welfare State. You can buy it on any major booksellers website as a paperback or ebook. So we are starting a series of women’s history episodes to celebrate the publication of her book. Today we’ll begin with an in-depth discussion of her book and its dominant themes. So sit back and enjoy our deep dive into Elizabeth’s book, The Sentimental State

Transcript for “The Sentimental State: Book Talk

Written by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD

Produced by Averill Earls, PhD

Averill: Dear listener, we’ve got a special episode for you today.Our producer, Elizabeth Garner Masarik, just published her first book,  The Sentimental State: How Women-Led Reform Built the American Welfare State. You can buy it on any major booksellers website as a paperback or ebook. So we are starting a series of women’s history episodes to celebrate the publication of her book. Today we’ll begin with an in-depth discussion of her book and its dominant themes. So sit back and enjoy our deep dive into Elizabeth’s book, The Sentimental State.

I’m Averill

And I’m Elizabeth

And we are you historians for this episode of Dig.

Elizabeth: We want to thank all of our Patreon supporters, and especially our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Hanna, Karl, Colin, Denise, Jessica, Edward, Lauren, Karen, Susan, Maria, and Lisa! We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to support this podcast.

Averill: Before we dive in I also want to alert our listeners to some exciting things happening here at Dig: A History Podcast. First, we co-authored an article in the March 2024 issue of Perspectives on History, which is the news magazine of the American Historical Association. The article is about our series on historical thinking that we just wrapped up in the last episode and explores the 6 c’s of history: context, change over time, causality, complexity, contingency, and a sixth- continuity. So please check out that article and those podcast episodes if you haven’t already.

Elizabeth: Also, our book Spiritualism’s Place: Reformers, Seekers, and Séances in Lily Dale is available for pre-order from Cornell University Three Hills Press. This history of Lily Dale reveals the role that this fascinating place has played within the history of Spiritualism, as well as within the development of the women’s suffrage and temperance movements, and the world of New Age religion. As an intentional community devoted to Spiritualist beliefs and practices, Lily Dale brings together multiple strands in the social and religious history of New York and the United States over the past 150 years: feminism, social reform, utopianism, new religious movements, and cultural appropriation. We are very proud of this book and we hope you love it as much as we do.

Averill: Ok, on to the episode. The Sentimental State: How Women-Led Reform Built the American Welfare State is a book that weaves together two nineteenth-century social issues– infant mortality and “fallen” women, aka sex work and the sexual double-standard– and shows how these two issues were interwoven into programs that formed the early American welfare state in the first decades of the 20th century. On it’s surface infant mortality and sex work might seem to be two completely different moral dilemmas but as Elizabeth will show, they were intimately combined.

Elizabeth: Right, I think you’ve explained it really well, that there these two kind of interconnected threads of regarding reform movements, between infant mortality and “fallen” women, but overall what I really wanted to do in this book is show how the American welfare state is built on the backs of women’s labor. That women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a need for reform and cobbled together networks that addressed these issues. So at its core this is a book of women’s history but it’s also a book about state building and politics, particularly political activism in an age before American women had the right to vote. So the book also looks at how these women exerted control, exerted agency, built political coalitions, and built networks that really got a lot done in an age where they had no official political voice, ie., in an age before the 19th Amendment.

[1] As such sentimentality was the genre and cultural norm that accompanied American expansion, imperialism, and industrialization through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. Sentimentalism’s preference for “over” feeling marched right alongside the expansion of the market, the expansion of the nation’s influence, the attempted genocide of Native Americans, and the growth of industrial cities.[2]

Averill: Yet despite sentimentalism’s pervasiveness, the general consensus is that the twentieth century rejected the overly sentimental and emotional for more rational, scientific and masculine modes of literature, politics, and popular culture. The rise of twentieth century professionalism, social science, reason, and data, which find their literary components in realism, modernism and postmodernism supposedly usurped the outdated romanticism and sentimentalism of the nineteenth century. But you contend that the social sciences of the twentieth century did not stamp out sentimentalism at all, but that it was still an important element to many women reformers.

Elizabeth: Right, I wanted to know what makes people step out of their comfort zone and into reform work. Also I was seeing these really sappy, sentimental writings peppered throughout congressional hearings and magazines that centered on women’s organizing from the 20th century and they seemed so at odds with the political organizing that I had been studying thus far. I wanted to rectify this state building (what Robyn Muncy termed the women’s reform domain) with this flowery language I was finding. Basically I wanted to understand the cultural context in which women reformers operated in an America where the expansion of government was creeping and often times, not visible. Government support of the welfare of people and politics do not act in a bubble. They are driven by the needs, decisions, and actions of people. And so, this is an examination of the cultural realities of the people who tapped national, state, and local funds to enact the changes they saw necessary in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era American world.

Averill: Women sentimental fiction writers in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century America, like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Susanna Rowsen who wrote the bestselling novel Charlotte Temple, fused a preoccupation with emotion to storylines that emphasized feelings as the means to develop positive action and outcomes. Sentimental novels tended to have female protagonists that relied on their moral compass to overcome short fallings in their own character or in the world at large. The protagonists often found marriage as the righteous and happy outcome after a litany of trials and tribulations in an immoral world, or death in the case of “impure” women like Charlotte Temple. However, the emotion used in these novels wasn’t simply meant to pull at the heartstrings for emotion’s sake alone. Many sentimental authors used emotion to campaign for social or political reform. For example, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, used sentimentality to address the evil of the day, slavery.

Elizabeth: Sentimental authors wanted their readers to feel anger, sadness or empathy for the characters that they read about, as well as feel anger or frustration at the social conditions that forced protagonists into undesirable situations. And sentimental literature could build gender consciousness. The popularity of sentimental literature corresponds with the rise of women’s voluntary organizing. With the changes in the market economy that fueled the changes in household production, women began constructing associations to meet their social needs. Historian Mary Ryan chronicled the rise of associations in the mid nineteenth century and deemed it “the era of association” by showing how the wives of merchants who were freed from the duties associated with family production founded charitable societies in their new leisure time. The wives of artisans formed maternal associations where mothers played an ever more important part in the rearing of children, strengthening the emotional and cultural ties of the mother and child bond.

Averill: Additionally, the sorrow and anger women experienced in their daily lives helped fuel this movement, through the very common fear or reality of losing a child, or through the loneliness of being left behind by grown children. Women experienced anger and moral outrage when they read sentimental novels and learned how slavery debased humankind. And they felt anger at the “slavery of sex” and the unfairness of the double-standard in keeping their fellow sisters as second-class citizens. They expressed this anger and sadness in private, through grief and mourning, through material culture, but they also began to act publicly. They began to join antislavery societies, they publicly signed petitions, they organized moral reform societies, and spoke out in favor of temperance and women’s rights. All were efforts of mothers to combine sentiment and anger at injustice in public efforts to create changes consistent with their own maternal and sentimental roles.

Elizabeth: Right. Sentimentalism wasn’t just a literary genre, it was a cultural phenomenon. And the success of nineteenth century sentimental power shaped many aspects of culture, politics and social movements in nineteenth century America and played such an important role in everyday society that it carried over well into the twentieth. Sentimentalism and emotion were core, driving forces behind middle-class women’s push into the political realm. It helps explain how individual responses to catastrophic events that were seemingly personal, like child death, colored collective responses that shaped the way the twentieth century “Progressive spirit” laid the foundations for the welfare state. Sentimentalism gave women who experienced child death and disease an outlet to vent their frustration, anger, and sadness. Sentimentalism was an integral part of middle class women’s push to involve government in welfare reform during the Progressive Era.

Averill: In major cities like New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, there was rapid immigration and industrialization happening and so in a lot of ways the cities were growing faster than the social infrastructure and the built environment could handle. In the case of New York City we actually explored this in one of our earliest episodes, which is 7 years old now but is actually still one of our most popular episodes, and it’s the Selling Sex episode.

Elizabeth: So that shows you how long I’ve been working on this project, the fact that I was writing that chapter 7 years ago and so that was kind of the research I was doing at that time which is why I made that podcast. And just to point out, a lot of that episode was based on Timothy Gilfoyle’s book City of Eros. In a city like New York City you’ve got a lot of immigration, rapid industrialization, and with that comes the kind of “social ills” that accompany that kind of rapid growth and two of those issues was massive illness and death– particularly among vulnerable children because of water borne diseases from impure drinking water and substandard plumbing situations– and you have the rise of a capitalist economy that undervalues women’s work and women’s labor and for many women one of the few ways to survive was to participate in sex work. And so these were very visible social ills that were apparent in large cities like New York City, and these issues continued throughout the 19th century into the 20th century.

Harry Hill's Concert Saloon
A night at Harry Hill’s. Photo courtesy NYPL

Averill: After an introduction of sentimentalism and the very real and powerful emotions that child death could have on women you get into the narrative. It begins in New York City with a man named Charles Crittenton, who was born in the burned over district of western New York in the first part of the 19th century. He moved to the big city when he was 21 years old and he settled with a brother in the Bowery District off of Broadway. Crittenton became a master of fortune so to speak, a smaller robber baron that gained a lot of wealth in the second half of the 19th century. Crittenton became a business owner and he did very well for himself. He married well, he bought real estate, and he moved his family into a mansion on 5th Avenue. For all intents and purposes he was the quintessential New York dandy man. He and his wife did experience the loss of a child early in their marriage but they went on to have a daughter who grew up and became successful herself.

Elizabeth: The Crittentons then had a late in life child, perhaps an oopsie pregnancy, and that daughter they named Florence. Florence, or Flossy as she was affectionately known, was the apple of her daddy’s eye. Sadly, Florence died from a bout of scarlet fever when she was only four years old. Her death completely devastated Crittenton. He fell into a deep depression, spent hours and hours at her gravesite, lost interest in his business and his marriage. But then he was rescued by experiencing a kind of religious awakening. Florence came to him in angel form and told him, basically to do good work and he did, he would see her in heaven. This experience completely changed Crittenton; he became an evangelist and he began working with other evangelist reformers in and around New York City.

Averill: Crittenden used his massive fortune to establish a rescue mission on Bleecker Street in New York City, which he called the Florence Crittenton Mission. The mission and his reform work was all done in the name of Florence. When you walked into the mission, one of the first things you would see was a picture of baby Florence and white lilies in a vase. They were always there to remind people of the baby girl that started this endeavor. The mission was a place where women participating in sex work could go and essentially live there for a while until they could get on their feet and perhaps escape bad situations that they were in.

Elizabeth: So, dear listener, you may be wondering about this story thus far. This was a man experiencing child death, that’s very different from what we earlier said this book was about, that women felt this emotion and wanted to do reform work to rectify that situation. And I’d say, you’re right! Charles Crittenden was definitely an anomaly in the ways he acted out his grief. Yet he did not start organizing men into grief circles or do anything that would really bring men into the kind of emotional labor that women were already performing. Instead what he does do is he uses his wealth– something that women were for the most part barred from earning and gaining —  so he uses this kind of male privilege he has of wealth to create a reform organization.

Averill: Crittenton ended up making connections with Francis Willard and Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) organizers and he began to fund some of the already existing WCTU rescue homes. That relationship began a somewhat franchise of Florence Crittenton homes. This is the part of the story where women reformers began to play a larger role in the Florence Crittenton rescue mission network. It was women who were organizing local homes and writing to Crittenton to ask him for financial support for the homes that they’d already established. It was women who were sourcing properties for rescue homes. It was women who were going out at night on the streets looking for sex workers or downtrodden women to come take shelter in the rescue homes. It was women who were acting as matrons or house mothers at these homes. It was women who were doing the fundraising to keep these local organizations. It was women who were doing the everyday, daily work of making these kinds of places run.

Elizabeth: With Crittenton’s partnership with the WCTU, the network of Florence Crittenton missions began to grow. After the first mission was formed in New York City, Crittenton established two or three homes in California. And then they began to open up across the country. How this most often worked is that Crittenton would just start to financially support rescue homes that had already been established, and that is how an important woman in our story, Kate Waller Barrett, comes into Crittenton’s orbit. Kate Waller Barrett was for all intents and purposes a southern belle born before the Civil War born into a slaveholding family in Virginia. She married an Episcopalian clergyman and traveled with him to different cities as he moved up the ranks in the Episcopalian Church. One of their first stations was in Richmond, Virginia. The couple ran a charity shelter in the rougher part of the city. That was where Waller Barrett became acquainted with women sex workers and the difficult situation that women were in. She was truly exposed to the sexual double standard that relegated sex workers to the fringes of society– yet they had to keep doing the work in order to survive– while men could have sex with sex workers with impunity and not have any detriment to their social standing. Waller Barret was also exposed to single mothers and again the double standard that unmarried pregnant women were subjected to if they had no male support. She saw how there was no way for a single woman to keep her child because she had to go out to work. That was of course at a time before daycare centers or anything like that. Most single mothers had to give their children up for adoption out of desperation. Waller Barrett saw the unfairness in these situations and really began to think on these issues heavily.

Averill: The Barretts moved to Atlanta, Georgia when her husband was promoted to another station in the church. It was in Atlanta where Waller Barrett opened up her first rescue home. She immediately faced many hurdles, the main one being that the neighbors around the home got up in arms about having a rescue home in their neighborhood. They didn’t want that kind of “undesirable element” in their neighborhood. Out of frustration and a bit of desperation, Waller Barrett wrote to Charles Crittenton and asked him for advice on how to make a rescue home a success. Crittenden ended up giving money to the home and a year later he traveled to Atlanta and the two met in person. This began a lifelong partnership that changed the trajectory of the Florence Crittenton mission movement.

Elizabeth: After a few years of working together, Crittenton asked Waller Barrett to become the superintendent of the Florence Crittenton missions. She accepted the role and became the head of the nation-wide organization. Waller Barret steered the Crittenton missions from a loosely based collection of rescue homes to a more professional and cohesive organization under the auspices of the National Florence Crittenton Mission (NFCM). She also steered the organization from focusing solely on sex workers to a focus on unmarried pregnant women, to provide a place where they could go and have their babies in a safe place and have somewhere to recuperate until they could get on their feet. What made the Crittenton Network different from most other maternity homes was that the NFCM became adamant– under the direction of Kate Waller Barrett — that the “natural mother love” that came from childbirth and becoming a mother was reform in itself. They believed that through a young woman’s “natural” mother love of her own child she would essentially get herself on the right path of life.

Averill: What made this novel was that the Crittenton homes were adamant that babies must stay with their mothers. Crittenton homes were not a place where a mother could go and have her baby and leave it there to be picked up at a later date or to be adopted out. If you were going to a Crittenton home to have your baby you were essentially signing up to stay there for at least 6 months at a minimum. Mothers had to breastfeed their baby because that was one of the proven ways to decrease infant mortality. Mothers would also learn some kind of trade or domestic skills while at the home and then the home would help them find employment that allowed the mother to keep her baby with her. So usually this was some kind of employment in domestic service in someone’s home that had agreed to allow a mother to bring her baby with her. Women  might also go into a home as a nurse, essentially watching other kids in the house as well as her own.

Elizabeth: Because the NFCM was a national group they had a lot of experience and opportunities to collect data, which was indicative of the professionalization of public health nursing and social work that was happening at the turn of the century. And so the Crittenton mission was able to collect information on survival rates of babies born to single mothers in NFCM homes who were kept with their mothers and breastfed, versus the mortality rate of babies born to single mothers who were given up for adoption at other, non-NFCM homes. They found that an overwhelmingly majority of babies that were born in Crittenton homes and thus kept with the mother for at least the first six months of life, and exclusively breastfed or wet nursed, had a significantly higher chance of survival versus their brothers and sisters who were placed in orphanages or given up for adoption. Of course there were many different reasons as to why the infant mortality rate was so different but a major one had to do with baby food purity. At that time there was no regulation of baby formula. Babies that were not breastfed were fed a variety of different concoctions from unpasteurized cow and goat’s milk to sugar water and or or just straight water. And of course with the lack of proper sanitation and running water in many large and small cities, the chance of a baby getting some kind of intestinal parasite were very high, which resulted in death for many young babies. 

Averill: Since the NFCM was a national organization, there were various ways that homes operated in local areas. For example, there were two Florence Crittenton homes in Topeka, Kansas. There was one for white women and girls and there was one for Black women and girls. During the early twentieth century there were only two Crittenton homes in the entire network that were designated for Black women. Some of the northeastern homes were integrated but Black women were admitted in very low numbers. This made the Kansas home for Black women special in the fact that it was rare. The home for Black women was founded by a woman named Sarah Malone. She was a Black woman that was born in Tennessee before the Civil War. As far as can be determined she was born free; Tennessee of course being a state that had both free and enslaved Black people in it before emancipation. Malone was part of the Exoduster movement which was a mass migration of Black people leaving southern states and heading to Kansas. The majority of these migrants either settled in Topeka or in the other larger city in Kansas, which was Lawrence.

Elizabeth: And like any place where there are a lot of people moving into it, particularly people that don’t have a lot of liquid money on them, social services become strained. This happened in Topeka and it was coupled with the fact that the people that moved to cities like Topeka were Black. White residents already living there began to get upset about the influx of Black people. Topeka was an interesting city because in some ways it was segregated and other ways it was not. Black people were able to work in public service jobs. For example the police department and the fire department were integrated. At the same time there were some restaurants and other public spaces like that that were segregated, so it was a kind of strange area at the turn of the century. But like any growing city and especially a growing city with a large population of underemployed and underpaid people, social services were greatly needed. Black women organized volunteer reform societies in Topeka, like they did in other major cities all over the country during the early 20th century. Malone and other Black women formed the Rescue Home Society in 1904, with the intention that it be a place for what they called at the time “friendless girls.” Friendless girls meant single women that had traveled to the city and needed a safe place to stay, or women who reformers deemed were vulnerable to sex work. The home served as a place where young Black women could stay and find jobs, and that was low cost or free, and have a respectable matron looking over them. In 1907, Malone and the governing board of the Rescue Home Society voted to convert their rescue home to a Florence Crittenton mission and it was accepted into the NFCM network.

Averill: A few things of note about this particular Crittenton home: one is Sarah Malone herself. We don’t have a lot of stories about these Exodusters and the lives they led after the massive Exoduster migration. There have been some major works on the movement, the most foundational being Nell Irvin Painter’s Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction. And although there has been scholarship on the Exodusters since, it’s still not a well known story to most people who aren’t really into American history. So it’s nice to be able tell this story about Sarah Malone and her organizing and reform work because it is a story of somebody who’s been lost in history. Another reason that the Topeka home for Black women is interesting is because it allows us to see how these voluntary, women-run reform organizations began to be integrated into the rudimentary American welfare state.

Elizabeth: I was able to find documentation that showed on a yearly basis the money that Kansas state legislatures would allocate to both Topeka Crittenton homes. It was interesting because the state legislature allocated the same amount towards the Black home as to the white home. Now the Topeka Kansas homes were not the only homes in the entire Crittenden Network that received money from either their states or their cities, but these particular homes in Kansas had very clear documentation. And so we are able to see these women-run social service organizations tapping into funds from the state and melding this associative state into something larger.

Averill: And Atlanta, Georgia also plays a larger role in this story. You’ll remember that Atlanta was where Kate Waller Barrett had been stationed when she opened her own rescue home and contacted Charles Crittenton. But by 1900 she had moved to Washington DC, took over one of the WCTU rescue homes called The Hope and Help Mission, and had turned that into the headquarters for the NFCM. However, in order to highlight how women-run voluntary organizations were integral in building the welfare state we’ll look at another Atlanta organization, the Neighborhood Union, founded by Black woman reformer, Lugenia Burns Hope. The Neighborhood Union was not associated with the national Florence Crittenton mission.

Elizabeth: Lugenia Burns Hope was a middle-class veteran of the settlement house movement, having worked in Chicago with Jane Addams. Burns Hope and others in the Atlanta-based Neighborhood Union organized a privately funded social welfare organization built for the public good, that in its later years was able to tap into municipal funding outlets to further its reform, health, and education campaigns. In its founding year of 1908, the Neighborhood Union enrolled seventy-seven girls and young women between the ages of eight and twenty-two years old in classes and activities held at the Union. They learned sewing and millinery skills, took cooking and dance lessons, and played sports and games in a gymnasium. The purpose was to keep the young women occupied, off the streets, and out of the dance halls and other concerning venues. It was also to exert “wholesome,” moral influence over impressionable youth. However sometimes more than sewing and cooking classes were needed to steer girls in the right direction. In some cases, the Neighborhood Union worked with the Atlanta court system in an attempt to help Black women and girls navigate the system safely and guide Black children to proper homes and institutions. The Neighborhood Union was able to put a number of girls and boys into reformatories, orphanages, and placed in better homes. Additionally, many “wayward and abandoned girls” were either sent to programs conducted by the Neighborhood Union settlement home or placed in reformatories.

Averill: Private charities and city officials worked together to aid and control impoverished and working class women when they entered the court system. When white or Black women were arrested or under surveillance in Atlanta, they were flagged to a charity organization or matron associated with charities and the courts who could figure out what to do with them. In Atlanta, oftentimes the Associated Charities or the Florence Crittenton homes were alerted to seemingly troublesome or in-need white women. The Neighborhood Union worked with the Associated Charities and directly with the municipal relief office to assist Black women. For example, Atlanta police records for this period show that in 1913, police arrested 636 white and Black women but only 452 of them went to court. The remaining 184 women were dealt with by the police matron. She either sent them back to their parents and possibly alerted an organization like the Neighborhood Union to the girls whereabouts, to the care of a social welfare agency like the Florence Crittenton home (if the girl was white), or to a public institution or reformatory.

Elizabeth: Atlanta was similar to Topeka in that it was a city that had a massive migration of Black people into the city between the 1870s and the turn of the century. Between 1870 and 1880, the Black population of Atlanta increased 64%. Between 1880 and 1890 the population increased 72%. This massive movement of Black people to the urban environment happened as the average increase of Black people throughout the population as a whole was only 20%. But the city’s growing New South economy was not shared by all inhabitants. Water and gas lines only extended to the edge of the central business district. Black neighborhoods were largely located outside of this area, consisting of six sections scattered around the periphery of the city center. Poor and Black neighborhoods lacked access to drinking and bathing water and relied on water from nearby fire hydrants and local wells up until World War I. Furthermore, trash removal and proper drainage were absent, and the area near the Black Atlanta Baptist College was used as a city dumping ground. This lack of infrastructure and basic city services exacerbated rates of infant and child mortality. Higher than average death and illness rates in Black neighborhoods were blamed on Black Atlanta inhabitants on account of their perceived moral failings, uncleanliness, and biological propensity for disease, instead of on the outcome of a segregated and sub-par built environment.

Averill: The Neighborhood Union divided Black neighborhoods in Atlanta into sixteen zones throughout the city. One woman was appointed to oversee a zone or section, and she was aided by ten supervisors. Each supervisor would in turn appoint ten other women within her zone to assist her, resulting in 111 female volunteers per city zone. These women went door to door to visit each home, told people about the Neighborhood Union plan, and requested their cooperation. Once on board, each participating family paid dues of ten cents a month if they could. According to Neighborhood Union records, this strategy proved quite successful. Overall, a total of 1,700 women participated as volunteers in the organization. Each neighborhood leader would meet with the families in her section and report back to the larger monthly meetings.

Elizabeth: One of the earliest projects the Neighborhood Union took on was the establishment of a health clinic. The first Neighborhood Union health clinic was held in 1908, which became part of a nationwide, grassroots movement to bring health professionals into working class neighborhoods. Community members could get quality medical care from doctors, nurses, and dentists. The Neighborhood Union even created a traveling medical clinic that traveled around the city in 1917, giving health services to Black people. In 1919 the Union organized health clinics with 17 volunteer doctors and 23 nurses. By 1924 they had 33 physicians and many more nurses and by 1930 the Neighborhood Union assisted over 4,000 Black Atlanta residents.

Averill: Tuberculosis was one of the most feared diseases and as early as 1909 the white-run Anti-Tuberculosis Association (ATA) reasoned that  “any movement directed toward the ultimate elimination of the disease in any Southern city must, of necessity, include the [Black]  population.” This racialized fear presented opportunities to organizations like the Neighborhood Union to petition white powers and financiers for increased funding and health resources in Black neighborhoods. Black reform women recognized they could use the realities of white supremacy to tap the power of the state. They joined the white-led Anti Tuberculosis Association as a way to lobby city government for better sanitation services without fear of retribution- thus tapping into city and state funds.

Elizabeth: The Neighborhood Union spearheaded a partnership with the ATA and formed a Black-run committee to investigate and report on the living conditions of Black Atlanta residents. This resulted in five hundred households in Atlanta’s Black neighborhoods being checked for signs and potential threats of tuberculosis. That data was immediately put to use in order to petition city officials for access to clean water, working sewers, trash pickup and recreation areas for Black children. So again showing how these women-run organizations began to build associational relationships with city and state governments and performed social service work as pseudo-government entities.

Averill: The final chapters of The Sentimental State show how this network of women-run reform organizations tapped into the national government through the U.S. Children’s Bureau. Agitation for a federal response to the plight of mothers and infants from women reformers resulted in the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children in 1909. This meeting drew national charity organizations and social reformers together for a meeting at the White House to discuss child welfare issues. Two-hundred and fifteen delegates from various charity and religious organizations attended the conference. Of those, only thirty were women. One of them was Kate Waller Barrett. There were no Black women at the event. Many Conference attendees wanted to press Congress to fund a national child welfare bureau that would report on all aspects of child life in America. We talk about that extensively in one of our other episodes, The United States Children’s Bureau: An Attempt to Curb Infant Mortality.  

A Children’s Bureau poster displaying some of the Bureau’s research | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: Women like Waller Barrett, who was a member of numerous organizations including the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and the National Council of Women (NCW), encouraged club members to write their representatives in support of the proposed Bureau. Jane Addams tapped her vast network in Chicago and beyond. Florence Kelley rallied the support of the National Consumers League, Charles Devine mobilized the attention of the readers of Charities magazine, and all aroused support from the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, the National Child Labor Committee, and the national web of women’s voluntary organizations including the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), National Congress of Mothers, and the American Federation of Labor, among many others. A vast letter writing campaign commenced and letters from average American women created enough momentum to move bills in the House and Senate to passage. The U.S. Children’s Bureau was formed in 1912. The bureau’s first projects were massive studies to understand infant mortality. Much of the data and records that the NFCM had collected were used by the Children’s Bureau to understand the issue.

Averill: Just to reiterate, all of this was done before the passage of the 19th Amendment! But all of these reformers were suffragists. Kate Waller Barret was an important member of the National Council of Women (NCW), which was an organization born from the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In 1895 the Florence Crittenton organization became an official affiliate of the NCW. Waller Barrett spoke at the NCW annual meeting alongside speakers such as Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, and Frances Willard. In 1899, Waller Barrett spearheaded the NCW’s “Committee to Inquire into the Proper Training and Care of Dependent and Delinquent Children,” which led the organization towards a larger focus on dependent children. Barrett became president of the NCW in 1912 and presided over official partnerships with numerous women’s clubs including the National Congress of Mothers and Parent-Teacher Associations, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs with the NCW. In 1909, Waller Barrett helped found the Virginia Equal Suffrage League and assisted it in growing to over 30,000 members by 1919.

Elizabeth: Lugenia Burns Hope was a founding member of the Atlanta Branch of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and later it’s vice president. The NACW strongly fought for the right of Black men and women to vote and were an important voice in pushing the National American Woman Suffrage Association to consider the plight of Black women.

So even as they were working for these social programs, they were also fighting for women’s suffrage.

Averill: So overall this is a book about state building but it also works to bring some forgotten women back into the spotlight. Kate Waller Barrett was an integral person in the women’s welfare network but most people have no idea who she was. Yet, she was rubbing elbows with all of the movers and shakers of the era. Sarah Malone ended up becoming a national organizer for the NFCM and traveled across the country assisting Crittenton homes with their operations. So these are two women leaders of organizations but we also have to consider all of the unnamed women who were doing so much of the legwork to keep these organizations and networks afloat.

Elizabeth: Yes, it’s really quite exciting to look at the larger picture and see how thousands of everyday American women created organizations that had a real impact on people’s lives. Now of course, this has painted a rosy picture of these social programs when there were elements of social control by women of the middle class trying to exert authority over working class women. And we’ve definitely talked about that in the episodes we’ve already mentioned above, so we won’t go into it much here. But the takeaway that we’d like to leave you with is that grassroots movements can and do make a difference. It might seem like small actions don’t amount to much but when combined with other small actions, they can create a giant movement.

Elizabeth: Thanks everyone who’s already ordered the book. We’ve got a slider on the homepage that links to the book and you can find a link in the show notes. If anyone wants to assign my book in their classes I’m happy to do a zoom call with your class to discuss it. Or I can come talk on your campus, just shoot me an email.

Averill: Thanks for listening. Please follow us on Facebook and Instagram @dig_history and join our Facebook group Dig History Pod Squad. We love listener mail. Send us an email at hello@digpodcast.org. You can visit digpodcast.org for a full transcript of this episode plus resources to use many of our episodes in the classroom.

Elizabeth: Thanks for listening!


[1] “Introduction”  Shirley Samuels, ed., The Culture of sentiment : race, gender, and sentimentality in nineteenth-century America (Oxford University Press, 1992), 14.

[2] Karen Sanchez-Eppler, Dependent States: The Child’s Part in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 146.


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