Pioneers for the Future: Reform Women in Dallas


Throughout the history of the United States, women have largely been forgotten and their roles in life deemed unimportant and unnecessary to document. However, without women's roles, the lives we currently lead would not be the same In the 19th century, for instance, middle-class women began to move from work related only to their household and started to work in the community, helping other women, immigrants, and children. This movement toward reform started changes in society that can still be seen today. This archival research details the actions of women in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex that changed society.

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    In our every day lives the knot in our threads
    Is formed by some small word or deed
    Which is mighty tho' small, but whose power is unseen
    So we pass them by without heed
    But ruin they'll work, and regret they will bring,
    If left unspoken, undone
    And with the efforts we've builded our future upon
    will slip from our grasp one by one
    Tie a knot in your thread and let that knot be,
    A motive that's noble and grand,
    A purpose to battle for God and the right,
    Though you stand all alone in the land.
    --Isadore Miner Callaway,
    “Tie a Knot in Your Thread”

    (McElhaney 1998:23–24)

    Research Methods and Interpretations of 19th-Century Women

    Throughout the history of the United States, women have largely been forgotten and their roles in life deemed unimportant and unnecessary to document. However, without women's roles, the lives we currently lead would not be the same. It was women who invented such household niceties as the dishwasher, the ironing board, and the chocolate chip cookie. However, women also invented the fire escape, the engine muffler, and the circular saw. Thanks to women, we do not need to worry about jumping from a five-story building in the case of a fire or worry about the vehicle next to us being so loud that we cannot hear an emergency vehicle coming.

    Women in history saw in themselves the characteristics to change the world and they took it upon themselves to try, however chastised they could become. In the 19th century, for instance, middle-class women began to move from work relating only to their household and started helping other women, immigrants, and children in the community. This movement toward reform started changes in society that can still be seen today.

    Research Design

    I have conducted my research on the culture of these late 19th- and early 20th-century women, gathering my information in a variety of ways. I conducted my literature research at Willis Library on the University of North Texas (UNT) campus. Additionally, I used the archives at Fondren-DeGoyler Library at the Southern Methodist University (SMU), and also the archives at the Dallas Historical Society. Besides archives, I used the American Memory Project through the Library of Congress website to find editorial clippings on free kindergartens, and also magazine articles from the 1880s. Finally, I obtained photographs of sites and the activities that they offered from the Dallas Public Library website.

    A Woman's Work is Never Done

    In the early 19th-century United States, a new socioeconomic class developed. The white-collar middle class, consisting of “families whose husbands worked as lawyers, office workers, factory managers, merchants, teachers, physicians, and others,” existed because of the growth of “new industries, businesses, and professions” (True N.d.:para.1). Although rooted in pre-industrial society, where families were community oriented and everyone worked, the new middle class differed in three significant ways. One, the entire family was not required to work; only the men were. Two, the new class fostered the view that only men should support the family. And lastly, family was looked at as the “backbone of society,” while kin and community lost some importance (True N.d:para.2). Through this change in mindset about work and family arose a “new ideal of womanhood and a new ideology about the home” – the “Cult of Domesticity” (True N.d.:para.3).

    The “‘Cult of Domesticity’ stated that women's God-given role was as wife and mother, keeper of the household, guardian of the moral purity of all who lived therein” (Conner 2007:para.2). The Victorian home was “to be a haven of comfort and quiet, sheltered from the harsh realities of the working world” (Conner 2007:para.2). This “ideal of womanhood” consisted of “four characteristics any good and proper young woman should cultivate: piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness” (True N.d.:para.4).

    Piety was important because, to 19th-century citizens of the United States, women supposedly had an inclination toward religion. The modern young woman was thought of “as a new Eve working with God to bring the world out of sin through her suffering, through her pure, and passionless love” (True N.d.:para.5). Religion was thought to be a remedy for a restless mind and also that it could be practiced in the home or “woman’s proper sphere” (True N.d.:para.6). During this time, women’s seminaries and academies, established by women starting in the 18th century, were attacked for leading women away from their “true purpose” and life task. However, reform women and men who founded these institutions claimed that far from leading women astray, they would make “young women handmaidens of God, efficient auxiliaries in the great task of renovating the world” (True N.d.:para.6).

    Female sexual purity, or virginity, the second ideal, was very honorable. Without it, “a woman was no woman, but rather a lower form of being, a ‘fallen woman,’ unworthy of the love of her sex and unfit for their company” (True N.d.:para.7).  After the marriage night, a woman was to be dependent upon her husband and she was to be “an empty vessel without legal or emotional existence of her own” (True N.d.:para.8). Before marriage, a woman was to always remain “pure and chaste,” to resist men’s sexual advances and to “guard her treasure with her life” (True N.d.:para.8). Mrs. Eliza Farrar, author of The Young Woman's Friend, gave this advice: “Sit not with another in a place that is too narrow; read not out of the same book; let not your eagerness to see anything induct you to place your head close to another person’s” (True N.d.:para.8).

    The third ideal for women, submissiveness, was considered the most feminine of the four virtues. Men were never to be submissive. They were the “movers, and doers – the actors in life” (True N.d.:para.12). Women were “to be the passive bystanders, submitting to fate, to duty, to God, and to men” (True N.d.:para.12). For those young women who may not have realized this, the Young Ladies Book made it clear the proper role of a woman in society: “It is certain that in whatever situation of life a woman is placed from her cradle to her grave, a spirit of obedience and submission, pliability of temper, and humility of mind are required of her” (True N.d.:para.13).

    Domesticity, the fourth and final ideal, stated that women’s place was in the home and her role “was to be busy at those morally uplifting tasks aimed at maintaining and fulfilling her piety and purity” (True N.d.:para.17). The household was the sanctuary. It was a place for women not only to do housework and watch the children, but a place for other “approved” tasks, like needlework and crafts that would keep the home cheery and peaceful, a place that would draw the men away from the “evils of the outer world” (True N.d.:para.18).

    Women’s household expectations were portrayed outwardly through letters to different publications. Many would write about the “drudgery,” or the endless, repetitive work repeated week to week, while still rejoicing the fact that they were fulfilling their “womanly role as keeper of the house” (Conner 2007:para.8).

    The “drudgery” included a myriad of tasks that women were to undertake, while receiving no recognition from the outside world. The tasks most likely included: laundry on Monday, ironing and mending on Tuesday, baking on Wednesday and Saturday, daily tidying of the kitchen and parlor, and thorough cleaning on Thursday and again on Saturday. This was in addition to childcare, three meals a day, hauling water and keeping the fire burning in the stove, a chore that in itself took at least one hour each day. Then there was making the family garments and seasonal preserving of fruits, vegetables, and meat. Often, too, the scope of work extended to the farm itself. Women had charge of the farm garden, livestock, and poultry and work related to “civilizing” the farm. During planting and harvest, if she did not work in the fields herself, she provided room and board for the extra help that did. [Conner 2007:para.9]

    Though women were expected to do these tasks as their duty, their work was devalued and thought to be unskilled.

    The mindset of the ideals of womanhood was portrayed through popular magazines, books, religious journals, newspapers, and everywhere in popular culture. They provided a “new view of women's duty and role while cataloging the cardinal virtues of true womanhood for a new age” (True N.d.:para.3). Examples of this can be found in The Household, a popular women's magazine during the 19th century:

    • A really good housekeeper is almost always unhappy. While she does so much for the comfort of others, she nearly ruins her own health and life. It is because she cannot be easy and comfortable when there is the least disorder or dirt to be seen. [Conner 2007:para.5]
    • Someone said that woman's best work is that which is unseen by mortal eye…that this work is the steady uplifting and upholding of a higher standard of living; it is the reaching forward and upward, both for ourselves and others, towards a loftier life…Yes, it is hard. But, sisters, it is work that belongs to us. It is work that, if not done by us, will never be done at all. For man cannot do it — as far as the family is concerned…For as a rule, and it is a rule that has few exceptions, woman creates the atmosphere of the home. [Conner 2007:para.6]

    Through advice such as this, women were being told that by keeping their homes neat, clean and pious and full of “warmth and inviting smells,” they were “achieving their highest calling,” in analogy to a religious avocation or calling to serve the good of mankind (Conner 2007:para.7).

    In addition to popular literature, a number of sayings reiterated the ideals of submissive women:

    • A really sensible woman feels her dependence. She does what she can, but she is conscious of her inferiority and therefore grateful for support.
    • A woman has a head almost too small for intellect but just big enough for love.
    • True feminine genius is ever timid, doubtful, and clingingly dependent; a perpetual childhood. [True N.d.:para.16]

    These ideas were perpetuated through the scientific beliefs of true manhood and womanhood during the 19th-century. Women and men were thought to be biologically different, accounting for the differences in manhood and womanhood, and also in the daily activities of each sex: “Female nurturance, intuitive morality, domesticity, passivity, and delicacy, and male rationality, aggressiveness, independence, and toughness were all due to physical makeup” (True N.d.:para.23). Women were thought of as both mentally and physically inferior to men.

    The Struggle for Equality

    Escaping from this mindset, women began to explore different careers outside the home and also college-level education. During the 19th century, there was a push for equal education for girls and boys. This idea fit “nicely into the social ideology that women were the rearers of children and the moral companions of men within the family, so some education seemed appropriate” (Conner 2007:para.23). However, the effects of “educating” women soon became clear. Instead of only making women better wives and mothers, it allowed women to use their education in ways society did not intend (Conner 2007:para.25).

    The first wave of feminist theory, established during the Enlightenment, “critiques sexist stereotypes of a biologically determined universal dominance of men in public roles” (Spencer-Wood 2006:66). The women’s equal rights movement during the Enlightenment sought “equal education, suffrage, women’s property rights, equal pay, and equal domestic rights, including divorce and the mother’s custody of her children” (Spencer-Wood 2007).

    Additionally, first-wave feminist theory opposes the Western patriarchal view of women as “domestic, close to nature, and innately immoral,” which causes women to be devalued. Cultural feminism, which developed out of the women’s domestic reform movement, was the basis for the Cult of Domesticity and valorized “women’s domesticity and closeness to nature and God as giving them a superior moral sense to men” (Spencer-Wood 2007).

    Historically, male biases used to construct the past, such as “ungendered paradigms, frameworks, method, and theory,” have led to the generalization of men’s experiences, while ignoring women (Spencer-Wood 2006:60). Because white men are the dominant social group, their actions and experiences have sometimes been seen to be representative of an entire culture, leading to the belief that “men have always been significant members of society who made important public history, while women’s domestic roles and activities were not significant to history” (Spencer-Wood 2006:62).

    In Marxist-feminist theory, which developed in the third wave of feminist theory, women were thought to have lost power in society when men began to trade women, similar to cattle. Women were first “owned” by their fathers and later by their husbands, making patriarchy an economic source; thus the power struggle between genders is analogous to Marx’s power struggle between classes in capitalism. Marxist-feminist theory also argues that “women’s unpaid domestic labor is essential in reproducing the capitalistic labor force;” thus “capitalism depends on the oppression of women as unpaid domestic laborers” (Spencer-Wood 2007).

    Women and the Settlement House Movement

    During the last decades of the 19th century, women began to explore realms outside of their roles as wife and mother. With the advent of the telephone and free delivery of mail to rural areas, the world was brought into family life (Granger 1906). Motivated by social and religious concerns, many young, white, mostly college-educated, middle-class women moved from their comfortable lives to live in social settlements in neighborhoods of the poor. The first settlement in the United States, Hull House, was established in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. The goals of the women were to “help alleviate the conditions and address the needs of local residents” (Handbook 2001:para.1). Reformers often lived in social settlements in order to offer services to the surrounding poor and mostly immigrant community.

    Women were active in social reform movements from the beginning. Their participation is due to two large factors. One, the first large group of females graduated from college at the start of the movement. And two, many of this generation of women did not marry. Women could both work and live at the house, which gave them a profession and family-free lifestyle that was socially acceptable (Handbook 2001:para.1).

    Reform women’s desire to improve the lives of children came from living conditions of the time. Through the municipal housekeeping movement, women argued that they “were the symbolic mothers and housekeepers of the community” (Spencer-Wood 2006:72). At the end of the 19th century, four times as many white children per capita worked in industry in the South compared to children in the North (Handbook 2001:para.2). Additionally, the children in the South experienced the nation’s highest illiteracy rate. The severity of these factors led women into community work.

    Southern women who had been raising funds for kindergartens for the children in slums and factory districts turned to settlement work because of their interest in helping children (Handbook 2001:para.2). Women at social settlements would act as community mothers, offering “after-school programs for children of working mothers, organizing local children to clean up the streets, and providing hot-water showers, baths, child clinics and laundries for the majority of working-class families living in cold water tenements” (Spencer-Wood 2006:72).

    Social Reform in Texas

    In Texas, the settlement house movement was mostly a collaborative effort between “single, college-educated women and older married women who had experience in charity work through voluntary associations” (Handbook 2001:para.2). Most settlements in Texas established kindergartens as their primary focus in order to bring parents into the settlement houses. Eventually though, the needs of the children became the main focus of the settlements (Handbook 2001:para.2).

    In 1895, a group of mothers petitioned the Board of Education at the McKinney Avenue Public School to spread gravel on the playground. The Board denied their request, so the mothers decided to do it themselves. They gathered together and thought the best idea was to chip in $5 each. However someone heard of the idea and donated the gravel to the playground (Enstam 1994).

    Subsequently, the mother’s club also initiated other changes in the school system. The women became the McKinney Avenue Mother’s Club and approached the Board again with a request for a new furnace. The Board, wholly comprised of males, agreed quickly. However, when the mothers asked for indoor plumbing for the school in 1898, their request was denied. The women again took it upon themselves to initiate change and appointed a committee to visit the mayor’s office daily until he would discuss with them their concerns. Eventually, the mayor met with the mothers and the McKinney Avenue Public School had modern plumbing installed (Enstam 1994).

    The twelve mothers involved in the McKinney Avenue Mother’s Club were among the first women to enter the public arena in Dallas. The first of the kindergartens was started in 1899 by Miss Mary Wilson. She felt that if she were to show her intentions and the manner of her work to the community, she would gain support. She taught alone for almost a year until, in 1900, the Dallas Free Kindergarten Training School and Industrial Association began (Dallas 2003). The Association organizers established it “to give the kindergarten teachers and students an opportunity to live in a simple, wholesome way, and to lend a helping hand to their neighbors and friends” (Woods and Kennedy 1970:294). During its first official year, the North Dallas kindergarten taught 35 children and had to turn away 42 others due to lack of accommodation (Dallas 2003).

    The Dallas Free Kindergarten Training and Industrial Association opened the Neighborhood House, which controlled the original McKinney Avenue Free Kindergarten (later known as the North Dallas), the South Dallas Free Kindergarten, and the East Dallas Free Kindergarten, among others (Woods 1970). In a May 26, 1901, Dallas Daily Times Herald article, Margaret Stewart Seymour states that “the Dallas Free Kindergarten Association will be entirely unsectarian, and will stand for trained work, as results are not possible where that is not required. It will endeavor to plant free kindergartens throughout the congested districts of Dallas.”  These kindergartens were established in Dallas because “of the urgent need for institutions in Dallas of this character” (Dallas 2003).

    The afternoon classes offered by the Association also encompassed the training of women to become kindergarten teachers. At the Neighborhood House, training classes were offered in the afternoon. In a report on the Association read by Mrs. Isadore K. Kahn, she explained the work being done by the young women in the kindergarten training classes:

    Twenty-eight splendid young women are enrolled in the following courses of study, which cover two years of: art, music, literature, dramatic expression, games, psychology, child study, philosophy, program-making, and manual work. Correlated with these classes in theory is practice-teaching in the kindergarten and primary grades. The diploma given by the Dallas Kindergarten Training school is accredited by the State Board of Education and will entitle a graduate to teach in any public school of Texas without examination. [Liebman N.d.]

    The Neighborhood House, costing $25,000 to build and owned entirely by the Association, housed the women who worked there as well as taught classes. Also in the report of the Association, Mrs. Kahn regarded the uses of the House and the values of kindergartens:

    On the top floor and mezzanine are resident quarters for teachers and boarding students and this year they have twenty-one in the family. A harmonious homelife is here maintained, presided over by the house-mother, Mrs. Janie W. Neal. On the main floor each morning one may see seventy-five bright-eyed little children between the ages of one and seven. In a brief report we have not time to dwell on the values of kindergarten but we must say in passing that it furnishes a true foundation for higher education, for it develops every phase of a child's being. [Liebman N.d.]

    The next year, the Association opened another kindergarten, the South Dallas, in the cotton mills district. The kindergarten was a success from the beginning and, according to a December 4, 1904, article in the Dallas Sunday Times Herald, 65 children were enrolled. Subsequently, another kindergarten, the East Dallas, was opened in the Mission chapel of the East Dallas Baptist church (Dallas 2003).

    The kindergartens were very involved in the lives of the people of the community. The attending children were between the ages of two and a half and seven years old, at which point they were old enough to enter public schools. However, the Kindergarten continued to supervise them until they were 14 years old, encouraging the children to return in the afternoons and “take advantage of the excellent course offered them there in industrial work, such as domestic science, cookery, and sewing” (Dallas 2003). Though not directly stated, these classes were mostly for the young girls, with a separate “Boys’ Club” for the boys and “Mother’s Club” for the parents (Dallas 2003).

    Later, the Association expanded its efforts to other areas. In the 1910s, the Dallas Free Kindergarten Association changed its name to the Dallas Free Kindergarten, Day Nursery, and Infant Welfare Association, expanding its aid to other members of the community. According to the Association’s bylaws, “the purpose of the Association shall be to maintain a kindergarten Training School, free Kindergarten, Day Nurseries and Infants Welfare Stations and similar provisions for the care and education of Infants and Children in the County of Dallas” (Liebman N.d.).

    On the silver anniversary of the Dallas Free Kindergarten, Day Nursery, and Infant Welfare Association, Mrs. Morris Liebman, a founder of the Association, expressed the sentiment felt by herself and the other founding women:

    With a saloon on nearly every corner, frequented by the fathers of the neighborhood, you may well imagine the needs of the little children. A kindergarten and different kinds of clubs were organized. Frequent visits were made in the homes, with the result that many changes for good were effected. [Liebman N.d.]

    Shortly after this, Mrs. Liebman retired as Association President.

    Similar social reform activities were taking place in other sections of the city. In 1902, Mrs. Lina Hagy Potts, along with women from six Methodist churches, formed the Greater Dallas Board of City Missions (Wesley-Rankin 2007b:para.1). In September of 1902, the first settlement worker, Estelle Haskins, was employed by the Greater Dallas Board of City Missions. Ms. Haskins was hired to help with the arrival of immigrants to Dallas. To the Greater Dallas Board of City Missions, the main problems of this area were “the poverty and low standard of living in the homes, and the shiftlessness and drunkenness of the men” (Woods and Kennedy 1970:295). The following year, a settlement house was opened to aid roughly three thousand people (Wesley-Rankin 2007b:para.2).

    In 1909, the Board established Wesley House, which, similar to the South Dallas Free Kindergarten, was located in the cotton mills district of Dallas. The mission house meant “to bring a Christian light to those who lived under the shadow of evil about them” (Handbook 2001:para.3). The Board successfully convinced the county to allow Wesley House to serve as a juvenile detention center so the children would not have to be housed with adult offenders. Eventually, the Board persuaded the county commissioners to build a Juvenile Detention Center of their own (Wesley-Rankin 2007b:para.5).

    The Wesley House also provided classes and services for the community. In addition to a kindergarten, “sewing classes, boys’ and girls’ clubs, sports, meeting rooms for community organizations, health services, and mothers’ clubs” were available (Handbook 2001:para.3). The mothers’ clubs, in particular, were “founded in the belief that working-class women would improve their mothering skills under the guidance of the better education settlement workers” (Handbook 2001:para.3).

    Out of Wesley House grew the Wesley-Rankin Community Center. Originally Wesley-Rankin was a community house for “immigrant children and their families in downtown Dallas” (Wesley-Rankin 2007a:para.1). Though the location and name have changed, the original goal, “to help families in the greatest need to care for their children,” has remained the same to the present (Wesley-Rankin 2007a:para.2).

    A Century Later…

    Portions of the settlement movement are still present in the society of the United States today. According to Barbara Trainin Blank (1998), “the ‘settlement house’ was at one time practically synonymous with social work in this country.” The field of social work grew from the work at settlement houses and, though they no longer go by the name, settlement houses still exist. “Essentially, settlement houses are neighborhood centers,” explains John Ramey, general secretary of the Association for the Advancement of Social Work With Groups. “The reason they don't stand out, perhaps, on a national level is because each center decides what to do and what to call itself. Some are neighborhood centers, some just centers” (Blank 1998:para.22).

    There are two key differences between the settlement houses of the past and neighborhood centers, as many are now called, of today. First, settlement workers no longer live in the settlements within the community. The settlements gained their name through this constant interaction with the surrounding poor community by a settlement of middle-class reformers, in analogy to settlement by people migrating to foreign lands. Second, workers, who previously were all or mostly volunteers, are now paid. However, according to Wilfred Isaacs, executive director of United Neighborhood Centers Association (previously the National Federation of Settlements), “all local centers remained committed to providing neighborhood services with as much local control and staff as possible” (Blank 1998:para.16).

    Neighborhood centers are set up as individual organizations to meet the communities’ needs. These needs are constantly changing with time. Now, there are a variety of services offered to the community by the centers, including early-childhood education, after-school programs, teen centers, English as a second language, GED classes, job training, tutoring, meals for the homeless and elderly, adult education for the developmentally disabled, and housing rehabilitation programs (Blank 1998:para.30). From social work to the right to work, the activities of the original settlement house women have made a tremendous impact on the world.

    Without an understanding of how reform women lived and worked within their communities and society as a whole, it is impossible to see how much progress has been made in the struggle for equal treatment of women. Through documenting and understanding how reform women started the process of change, we are not only showing our appreciation for what they have accomplished, but learning from what they did in order to apply their lessons to present problems facing women and the world.


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