Historians and political scientists are increasingly turning to the American past in search of guidance in shaping the future of America’s antipoverty policy. They are doing so for good reason: the contemporary effort to reduce poverty by encouraging the poor to take greater personal responsibility for their lives (and livelihoods) returns us in many ways to the perspective of several insightful nineteenth-century philanthropists. In this impressive new biography, devoted to one of the most thoughtful members of that group, Joan Waugh begins by remarking on the similarities between today’s concerns and those of yesterday: as she notes, the current debate about welfare reform centers on the very issues of “personal responsibility and fostering independence” that were crucial for Josephine Shaw Lowell.
Unsentimental Reformer is remarkable both for its approach and for its subject. To begin with the approach, it is a minor news event that an academic book—published by a leading university press, and written by an assistant professor of history at UCLA—should be genuinely sympathetic to Lowell’s aim of promoting personal responsibility and fostering independence among the poor. In this respect it marks an almost revolutionary departure from the standards of the academic history of American social welfare. Almost all of the relevant literature has been written by members of two different historical schools, neither of which is at all sympathetic to social policy’s attempts to instill morality. As Waugh explains, one historical school criticized figures like Lowell for their “‘old-fashioned’ ideas about individual responsibility and morality yet lauded [their] other substantial contributions to philanthropy.” But that school was then succeeded by a revisionism that harshly attacked Lowell and others like her for wrongly “impos[ing] their standards, their morals, and their punishments on a helpless underprivileged population.” In short, the charity reformers of America’s past have either been praised despite their moralism—or condemned because of it.
In contrast, Unsentimental Reformer is notably devoid of any prejudicial dismissal of Lowell’s moral concerns, which Waugh consistently treats in a fair-minded way. Thus, instead of attacking Lowell’s support of reformatories for wayward girls as an attempt by wicked elites to impose social control upon the poor, Waugh defends these institutions: “Undoubtedly, the young women, perhaps a majority of whom were from severely disorganized homes, benefited from a strict regimen of discipline, domesticity, and moral uplift.” And in a second departure from contemporary academic orthodoxy, Waugh also speaks respectfully of Lowell’s religiosity: “Religious sentiments and a belief in a just and humane God permeated Lowell’s work and imbued it with a gravity that would have been lacking had she only viewed her career as a professional social worker, as did later generations.”
But as Waugh herself would undoubtedly concede, Unsentimental Reformer owes its importance more to its subject than its author’s approach. Josephine Shaw Lowell (1843-1905) was born into a wealthy Boston family of prominent social reformers. (Her brother, Robert Gould Shaw, was an abolitionist who died in Civil War combat as colonel of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment of colored troops; his story—and that of his troops—was movingly recounted a few years ago in the award-winning film Glory.) At age 19 she married a descendant of an equally distinguished though far less wealthy family—Charles Russell Lowell (of the family that reputedly talked “only to Cabots,” while the Cabots talked “only to God”). Her husband too died in the war, and Lowell became a widowed mother at age twenty. She never remarried after her husband’s death and dressed in black every day for the rest of her life.
Lowell began her work for charitable causes during the war, joining a women’s organization that helped care for wounded servicemen; after the war she worked to provide schooling for the South’s newly freed black population. Lowell is best known, though, for her efforts to relieve urban poverty; in 1882 she became the founder of New York City’s Charity Organization Society (and, as Waugh notes, the “leading philosopher” of the charity organization movement nationwide).
Lowell’s work on behalf of New York’s poor was aimed at both moral and material improvement. Waugh rightly calls her an “unsentimental” reformer, because Lowell did not believe in making excuses for the occasional moral lapses of the poor. She abhorred the dependency of able-bodied persons capable of supporting themselves, and she always opposed the idea of relief as an entitlement. Instead Lowell contended that the poor had to aspire to self-reliance; to achieve it, she consistently stressed that they needed to find work and to practice the virtues of diligence and thrift.
But notwithstanding her lack of sentimentality, Lowell was also a reformer—and not just of the morals of the poor, but also of the structures of society. She understood that the poor were often underpaid for such work as they were able to find. For that reason she ardently supported both the unionization of labor and governmental regulation of the workplace (to set maximum-hour laws, for example). The poor had to work to earn their support, and not to live not as passive, alms-accepting drones; but the work that they did also had to be fairly rewarded, an end that social reform could help achieve. In Waugh’s formulation, Lowell “believed . . . that it was the duty of everyone to be a thrifty, industrious, and virtuous member of society,” and that charitable organizations could help the poor achieve this goal; but she also realized that the poor were entitled to essential governmental services (such as effective public education) that would “enable them to be independent and worthy citizens.”
Waugh’s portrait of Lowell is uniformly favorable; this is not a book for fans of biographies by Kitty Kelley. Her evident admiration for Lowell almost certainly stems from the womanhood that author and subject have in common: if Josephine Shaw had been born Joseph, I would have to wonder whether Waugh would have chosen to become his biographer.
Still, Waugh’s discussion of gender issues is uniformly relevant and sensible. For one thing, gender actually helps greatly in explaining Lowell’s career path, since “charity was the one public arena where nineteenth-century women could and did claim legitimate rights for exercising power for the good of the community.” Furthermore, in at least one instance gender constraints seriously harmed Lowell’s career. Having accumulated vast knowledge of New York’s prisons, reformatories, and poorhouses, in 1885 she was nominated to become one of three commissioners in charge of the city’s “paupers, insane, and criminals”; but the mayor turned down her appointment, because (in Lowell’s words) “he thinks a woman could not know anything about the prisons.”
Although she speaks of gender where it is relevant, Waugh wisely abstains from riding it as an ideological hobbyhorse. Thus she rejects the contemporary feminist critique that “Lowell aligned herself with the male power elite at the expense of other women,” opting instead for the commonsensical view that “men and women were not necessarily at odds with each other but shared similar interests and acted together to carry out common goals.”
In short, while it may be true that Waugh chose to lionize Lowell as an undiscovered heroine, her choice is surely defensible, because Lowell really was a heroine. The sisterhood could do (and has done) a lot worse than to add a woman like Lowell—a tireless advocate of the rights but also the responsibilities of the poor—to its pantheon.
A contributing editor of Philanthropy, Joel Schwartz is also a research fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.