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Lessons from the past

"Lessons from the past" Continued...

Issue: "Millions cut down," Jan. 17, 2009

The first at-risk group, young women on their own in big cities, received the greatest attention. The female labor force outside the home increased from 2.6 million to 10.8 million between 1880 and 1930; more unmarried young women were moving to cities and living apart from immediate family or relatives, often in boardinghouses. Exposed to many new ideas about behavior, they had many opportunities to act on the ideas-but they were also subject to moral expectations young men could escape. A man could go "astray in his youthful prime" and still be accepted, but when a woman "followed blindly where fond love led," she was confronted by an unforgiving double standard and sometimes by a physical surprise.

Many groups at the time tried to educate men into a greater sense of responsibility. Organizations such as the White Cross Society, influential in the 1880s, pressed men to "treat the law of purity as equally binding on men and women." Thousands of men signed pledges promising chastity and affirming "the unity of the moral law for both sexes." The WCTU tried to teach men about self-control in sexual as well as alcoholic pursuits. Women's groups published millions of booklets and tracts.

Other organizations established shelters for the pregnant and unmarried: By 1895 Chicago had a dozen, including the Life and Hope Mission, the Rescue Mission, Beulah House, the Jewish Home for Girls, and Boynton Refuge Home. One refuge, the Home for the Friendless, cared for 1,291 women in 1893. Smaller cities showed a similar pattern: Minneapolis, for example, had several refuges, including Bethany Home and the Norwegian Home of Shelter, where "the girls are placed under wholesome moral influences and given practical industrial training. In each the religious motive is emphasized . . . but in each, girls of all faiths are received without discrimination."

New York City had dozens of helping agencies. Some worked toward prevention of unmarried pregnancy by providing group lodging to women who would otherwise be alone and vulnerable; among these were the National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes, the Association for Befriending Children and Young Girls, the Free Home for Young Girls, and the New Shelter for Young Women. Unmarried pregnant women had at least 20 options for lodging, help, and training, including the Magdalene Benevolence Society, the House of Mercy, and the House of the Good Shepherd (with room for 1,042 women).

National organizations also were active. Florence Crittenton homes-the number grew to 65 by 1927-helped 500,000 unmarried women between 1883 and 1933. The Salvation Army had 34 homes for unmarried mothers, the WCTU's Department of Rescue Work had at least five, the Protestant Episcopal Church had 12 Homes of Mercy, and the Door of Hope group had 40 homes for young women "built in hope of not simply sheltering and furnishing them with employment, but through love and sympathy leading them to a Christian life."

These groups asked women contemplating a quick fix to think about adoption instead, and to compare their own months of trouble with the years of good life that their children could have. I read 20 years of monthly reports from Chicago's Erring Women's Refuge (evidently a euphemism-free zone) with jottings like these: "one child was adopted. Little Earl had found a home with a kindhearted and lonely woman. . . . two infants were adopted last month, good homes being provided for them. . . . A good home is provided for C.S.'s child, Jane." An 1895 study of Chicago adoption groups such as the Children's Aid Society and the Foundlings' Home concluded, "The children generally remain at the homes but a few weeks, there being more calls for their care and adoption than the supply can meet."

In smaller cities as well, pro-life forces made adoption a priority. A WCTU refuge in Elmira, N.Y., placed for adoption over two-thirds of the babies born between 1890 and 1907. Lem Abbott Odom, who spent 50 years managing refuges in Montgomery, Ala.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Shreveport, La., recommended that unmarried mothers who could not marry the fathers place their children for adoption. About 85 percent of the young women he helped were able to marry or to be restored to "homes, gainful occupations, and positions of trust."

Prostitutes made up the second at-risk group. In 1891, a Chicago bookkeeper could trade her salary of $8 per week for "massage parlor" work that paid $10 to $12 per week, plus another $20 in tips for full-fledged prostitution. A Cincinnati woman could trade a $5-per-week starting factory wage for $25 to $30 a week as a hooker. Anti-prostitution reformers knew the economic as well as the moral component of the problem, and the short-run lures that led to several years of increasing misery, generally followed by death.

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