Archive for the ‘reformers’ Category

Here’s a cool article about lesbian “power” couples of the past, quite a few of whom I have to admit I’d never heard of. Who are your favorites?

Ethel Williams and Ethel Waters


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Newcastle, Maine

Frances Perkins home
“The Brick House”
River Road

Frances Perkins (1880-1965), FDR’s secretary of labor, was the first woman ever to hold a presidential Cabinet post. The primary architect of some of the New Deal’s greatest programs, including Social Security and unemployment insurance, she played a major role in helping to bring the country out of the Great Depression. This 1836 house (see photo) on the coast of Maine was her family home; she and her sister inherited the site, and Perkins used it as a special retreat. It is still standing, and plans are in the works to transform it into the Frances Perkins Center, a place for students and scholars to work on projects that mesh with Perkins’ vision.

A graduate of Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University, Perkins was a lifelong social reformer and activist. Early in her career, she was part of the committee that investigated the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, which killed 146 workers, mostly immigrant women, who were trapped in the burning building. Following a career as a settlement worker and factory inspector, Perkins eventually held the post of N.Y. State Commissioner of Labor under Gov. Franklin Roosevelt. When Roosevelt became president in 1932, he invited her to join him in Washington, and the rest is herstory. Perkins served in the Cabinet for the next 12 years. In her later life, she was guest professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Although she married economist Paul Wilson in 1913, a 2009 biography of Perkins by journalist Kirstin Downey reveals that she had a secret affair with Mary Harriman Rumsey, the sister of Averell Harriman. The book further examines how and why Perkins, surely one of the greatest Cabinet members and social reformers of all time, has slipped into oblivion.

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New York, N.Y.

Henry Street Settlement
265 Henry Street

Lillian D. Wald (1867-1940) was one of many women of her generation who felt the need to make a contribution to society rather than settle into a comfortable, middle-class life. After training as a nurse, an experience that brought her into contact with the dire health-care needs of the immigrant poor on New York’s Lower East Side, Wald and classmate Mary Brewster decided to start a settlement house in the neighborhood in 1895. International banker Jacob Schiff provided the red-brick building that became the Henry Street Settlement and Visiting Nurse Service, which is still standing and in operation today.

Like Jane Addams in Chicago, Wald attracted a group of dedicated women to live and work with her at Henry Street, providing low- or no-cost health care to the poor in their homes. Within the next dozen years, the Visiting Nurse Service included 100 nurses, who made almost a million house calls a year. One nurse recalled later that Wald was always “the first to hear a knock at the front door to respond to an incoherent stumbling appeal for a nurse.” But Henry Street became more than a health care facility; it acted as a community center, too, providing classes and cultural experiences.

Wald shared her life with a community of women and enjoyed intimate relationships with several. Among them were Mabel Kittredge, a wealthy donor, and Helen Arthur, a lawyer and theater producer, who once wrote to Wald of longing “to get back to your comfortable lap… instead of being solicitously hustled from your room at ten o’clock.” Wald’s intimate companions quickly discovered that her relationship with Henry Street Settlement would always be primary.

During World War I, Wald became actively involved in the peace movement, which made her work and travel schedule more hectic. She purchased a country house in Westport, Connecticut, in 1917, and periodically took time off there as a retreat. She finally retired from her settlement work in 1933 and spent her remaining years in Westport.

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Chicago, Ill.

800 South Halsted Street

In 1889, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, intimate companions since their college days, founded one of the most famous social experiments in this country’s history, Hull-House. It was their intention, Addams wrote later, “to rent a house in a part of the city where many primitive and actual needs are found, in which young women…might learn of life from life itself….”

The house they located was built in 1856 for Charles Hull, a prominent Chicagoan. Addams described the building as “a fine old house…, surrounded on three sides by a broad piazza which was supported by wooden pillars of exceptionally pure Corinthian design and proportion.” It stood, she noted with amusement, “between an undertaking establishment and a saloon.” Though the house was being used for offices and storerooms for a neighboring factory, Addams and Starr were able to rent the second floor and a downstairs drawing room, and the following year, they obtained the lease on the entire building. They furnished it with “a few bits of family mahogany” and items from their travels abroad and officially took up residency in September, 1889.

In an era when foreigners were feared and xenophobia was rampant, Addams, Starr, and the women who came to work with them offered immigrants (mainly Italian) education, medical care, guidance, and day care facilities. Expanding to thirteen buildings over the years, Hull-House became a model for settlement houses across the country. It was also a training ground for numerous reformers, including Julia Lathrop and Florence Kelley.

Addams’ biographers have generally ignored her personal life, assuming that she didn’t have one because she wasn’t attached to a man. Yet, though her intimacy with Ellen Starr had waned by the early 1890s, Addams shared a 40-year relationship with Mary Rozet Smith, who was one of the many idealistic young women from wealthy backgrounds who came to work at Hull-House. Smith routinely accompanied Addams on her lecture tours, and Addams was always sure to wire ahead to the hotel where they were staying for a room with a big double bed.

Although Hull-House as a social-service organization is still in existence, the original building at Polk and Halsted is now a museum, under the auspices of the University of Illinois-Chicago.

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