When it comes to the field of social work in the United States, it is women who have really been the pioneers. Starting with what is commonly referred to as the Progressive Era, women have led the fight to improve conditions for the less fortunate and for and entire industry to be built around helping others.
History changers from the Progressive Era included notable women such as Jane Addams, Margaret Sanger, Lillian Wald, Margaret Fuller, Eleanor Roosevelt and Josephine Lowell. I have been familiar with the name Josephine Lowell for quite sometime, and I recently had the opportunity to learn more about her and found her story to be one I needed to share this Women’s History Month.
Like many trailblazing women from the Progressive Era, Josephine was born to a well-to-do family, and like many other social activists of the time, her parents were Unitarian Universalists. She was born in Massachusetts in 1843, and had the opportunity to travel around Europe with her family before they settled in Staten Island.
Josephine came of age during the Civil War and began her public service career as a teenager volunteering for the U.S. Sanitary Commission. It was during this time that she met her husband Charles, who she would soon travel with to Virginia where he served as Colonel and she volunteered tending to injured troops. Josephine faced the devastating consequences that many did during this time, losing both her new husband and brother to the war.
After the death of her husband Josephine gave birth to their daughter and moved in with her family back in Staten Island. She soon took it upon herself to starting working on behalf of communities who, especially during Josephine’s time, had few people standing up for them. She became involved early on as an advocate for Philippine independence and the Anti-Imperialist movement before working to improve education for African Americans, and then went on to organizing to improve conditions in hospitals, jails, and mental institutions.
I would love to have the chance to ask Josephine what led her to become a social reformer, and if there was something from her early life that effected this decision. I have always been so impressed and intrigued with the women of this time who came from such wealthy backgrounds yet decided to use their lives to better their communities. Not only was it rare for women to take such an active role in such work, given her family’s wealth there are many other things she could have done with her time.
It was her work with poor communities in Manhattan that led her to eventually move to the island. Being closer to those she was serving allowed her greater capacity to serve and in 1876 the governor, recognizing her accomplishment and ability to create change, appointed her to the State Board of Charities, making her the first woman ever to serve on the board.
Josephine took her work beyond direct service and effectively lobbied to have laws passed regarding conditions in mental institutions, care for disabled women, and care for female prisoners.
During Josephine’s time her greatest accomplishment was seen as the founding of the New York Consumers’ League in 1890, which existed to improve working conditions for women. The organization was quite daring for its time and not only documented inhumane treatment of women and children, but publicized their findings and encouraged the public to purchase goods only from companies that treated their workers well. This type of approach forever changed the consciousness of the American consumer.
Josephine became famous for her development of the White List, a directory of retail establishments that had a good reputation for treating workers well. The list was so successful in raising awareness for working conditions that it was soon adopted in Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago.
Josephine never stopped working and developing ways to improve conditions for the people of New York City. She also founded the New York Charity Organization, the House of Refuge for Women, the Woman’s Municipal League, and the Civil Service Reform Association of New York State.
Josephine was progressive for her time and had an understanding about the consequences and prevention of poverty that not many other privileged people had. She once said: “If it could only be drummed into the rich that what the poor want is fair wages and not little doles of food, we should not have all this suffering and misery and vice.”
Josephine died in 1905 and hundreds of people attended her funeral. She was so beloved by the city for her contributions that the first city monument dedicated to a woman, a lovely granite fountain, was erected in her honor in 1913.
Janice is a Virtual Assistant, aspiring doula, and long-time feminist activist with a passion for women's history, nonfiction, nature, and wearing flowers in her hair. She is the Founder of The Feminist's Guide, a women's history travel website, which can be found at www.thefeministguide.com.