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January 3, 1997
American Historical Association Convention, New York City
My paper evaluates The Search for Order from the perspective of women's and gender history.
To begin, we need to ask the simple question: whether The Search for Order included women at all, the answer to which is certainly,Yes. Florence Kelley, Lillian Wald, and Jane Addams are right there along with Theodore Roosevelt, Frederic Howe, and the Walters, Lippmann, Rauschenbush and Weyl. Moreover, in his consideration of the professions, their historical development and place among the new middle class that produced Progressivism, Wiebe includes the predominantly female professions, teaching and social work, and he does so without prejudice, analyzing them right alongside medicine, law, and journalism. Moreover, Wiebe routinely refers to the "women and men" of the new middle classes, explicitly acknowledging that the group he is analyzing is not all male, and he argues outright that the reason that women eased their way into this new professional middle class was because they, for the most part, confined themselves within "professions associated with womanly qualities." (p. 122)
Women, thus, were not absent from Wiebe's analysis, but they were less frequently named or quoted; they loomed smaller than the more familiar male Progressives. The experiences of a few women were more or less folded into the experiences of their male counterparts, which raises a broader question about whether the analysis actually fit women as well as men. That is, can we see women progressives as part of a new middle class, devoted to bureaucratic values that they then used to create new kinds of government structures and policies.
Again, the answer seems to be yes. In fact, for many of the most notable women reformers, the analysis fits perfectly. Women like Florence Kelley, Grace and Edith Abbott, Sophonisba Breckinridge, Josephine Goldmark, Frances Kellor, Katharine Bement Davis, and a host of other social science researchers devoted themselves to creating government agencies to manage problems like factory safety, immigration, child labor, and female delinquency. All were from middle-class backgrounds and became or tried to become professionals able to underwrite their own authority in the world by promoting what they would have called scientific solutions to social problems.(1)
But these were not the only women to take part in Progressive reform. A much larger group of women participated through the club movement. At first blush, Wiebe's analysis would not seem to fit these hundreds of thousands of female progressives. These women were not, after all, professionals in the Wiebian sense of the word. Wiebe identified his new middle class with two groups, one comprising aspiring professionals and the other ambitious businessmen. Married women with children, who neither claimed professional credentials nor sought business opportunities, did not fall into either of these groups. Nevertheless, the women participated in the same initiatives as Wiebe's designees. In their clubs, hordes of women not only studied the latest social science surveys but often helped to conduct them. As volunteers, they went door to door seeking information on births, deaths, infant and maternal health as well as child labor. These non-professional women lobbied to create public agencies to manage maternal and infant health, the effects of poverty on women and children, education, and juvenile delinquency. They were, moreover, like their professional allies, part of a process that reached beyond the locale to create national initiatives on women's health, childrearing, and education.(2) If, then, we expand Wiebe's explicit list of progressives to include club members, the rest of his analysis seems to fit these mostly non-professional women just fine.
Their absence from Wiebe's initial list is, however, significant. While we would certainly categorize these club members as middle class, we are reminded that they had a relationship to class different from their employed husbands and sisters. They remind us that one of the new tools devised by historians since The Search for Order is an understanding of gender. Using gender as a category of analysis we can build on Wiebe's conclusions.
For instance, in 1967, Wiebe did not notice that women might have had peculiarly female motives for promoting new bureaucratic values or that women and men might have created slightly different versions of bureaucracy itself. In some cases, for instance, new professional women had more to gain from the institution of bureaucratic procedures that men did. It was, after all, one of the goals of bureaucratization to fill jobs with candidates based on their skills alone. Whether one were male or female was not supposed to matter in decisions about whom to hire for a commission to set minimum wages, for instance, or to inspect factories. That gender did matter much of the time despite the implementation of merit hiring does not diminish the fact that women saw the rationalization of hiring as part of their hope for gaining a foothold in positions previously reserved for men. In this way, bureaucratic procedure had a special appeal for women, an insight gained from a sort of analysis simply unavailable in 1967.
More important, we can now add that the emergence of a new middle class required the concomitant emergence of a new gender system. Feminist historians have shown that as a middle class was materializing in the early nineteenth century, one way that this new class identified itself was by evolving a peculiar gender system that insisted on breadwinning husbands supporting dependent wives and children. Part of the meaning of being middle class in the mid-nineteenth century was the ability to assign women to a "private" sphere (that included not only their households but also voluntary organizations construed as religious and charitable) and to locate men in "public" (a sphere that encircled business, professions, politics, and government).(3)
Even when this doctrine of separate spheres held greatest sway, many variations existed, but it certainly identified the groups that were most likely to melt down into the material from which a new middle class was forged late in the 19th century. If this gender system was integral to the nineteenth century middle class, then the emergence of a new middle class in the early twentieth required a new gender system to distinguish itself from the old middle class as well as from the working classes of the early twentieth century. And sure enough, all evidence suggests that the creation of new gender identities was part of the process of creating/identifying this new middle class and, I would argue, part of progressive reform itself.
In a nutshell, that new gender system, shrank the distance between women and men, produced a more androgynous gender system than had identified the nineteenth-century middle class. In the new scheme, middle class women became more independent and men more dependent (not on women but on each other); and, women made themselves at home in more ostensibly public places than before.
To provide some specifics: Those mostly unmarried female social scientists that Wiebe counted among Progressives represented not only a new middle class but also a new form of womanhood. Even those women who would eventually marry now routinely worked for wages before their nuptials, and sometimes returned to public life after children were grown. Public life now included for women positions within the government at the local, state, and federal levels, positions within business, and even in party politics. By 1920, most U.S. women could claim the polling booth as their rightful place.
Middle-class men, on the other hand, could no longer enjoy electoral politics as an exclusively male domain, nor professional associations, nor even responsibility for the family income. They responded in a variety of ways, some finding the basis for a modern manhood in a newly vigorous military and foreign policy (as we see most vividly in the life and policies of Theodore Roosevelt), and/or in the hope of steady advancement within corporations (a luxury denied most women at the time), in rough sports (as participant or fan) and/or in a newly assertive domestic position as a hands-on father. In all these cases, middle-class men accepted a manhood sapped of much of the individualism that the nineteenth century had required. The new middle-class manhood instead embedded men in groups--often hierarchies--be they military or corporate or sporting.(4) Albert Shaw, one of Wiebe's Progressive era informants, described what he saw emerging as a "cooperative man of the future, as against the competitive man of the past."(5) Shaw saw in other words modern man as one enmeshed in many human conglomerations rather than standing dramatically, splendidly alone as a small-town lawyer, a small businessman, or individual contractor.
So, integral to Wiebe's new middle class was a new gender system that was, in part, established and nationalized through Progressive reform. However we might define the new gender system integral to the new middle class that ushered in progressive reform, it does not undermine Wiebe's central arguments but rather builds on them. From where I sit, then, our ability to comprehend turn-of-the-century reform continues to rest solidly on the understanding that Robert Wiebe articulated in 1967.
Before closing, I want to observe one thing further, something outside of my particular ken: it is simply that in The Search for Order, Bob Wiebe was already doing what many of us are now touting as the new political history. A group of historians writing in what might have seemed like fairly different fields in the 1980s and 1990s have discovered that we have in common the desire to see governmental policy and institutions as reflective of and creating or sustaining larger cultural and social formations. That is, we believe that political history is not something separate from social and cultural history but a part of it. We aim to revitalize political history by seeing it in the context of social and cultural history.
Thirty years ago, Bob Wiebe did all of this--with panache. He argued that a revolution in values (cultural history) helped to identify a new middle class (social history), which ultimately pioneered innovative government policies and structures (political history). Those of us seeking to do the allegedly new political history could follow no more successful model than The Search for Order.
(1) The literature on women progressives is voluminous. See, for instance, my own CREATING A FEMALE DOMINION IN AMERICAN REFORM, 1890-1935 (New York, 1991); Ellen Fitzpatrick, ENDLESS CRUSADE: WOMEN SOCIAL SCIENTISTS AND PROGRESSIVE REFORM (New York, 1990); Linda Gordon, PITIED BUT NOT ENTITLED: SINGLE MOTHERS AND THE HISTORY OF WELFARE (New York, 1994), especially Chapters 4 and 5.
(2) See, for instance, Theda Skocpol, PROTECTING SOLDIERS AND MOTHERS: THE POLITICAL ORIGINS OF SOCIAL POLICY IN THE UNITED STATES (Cambridge, MA, 1992) Part III; Molly Ladd-Taylor, MOTHER-WORK: WOMEN, CHILD WELFARE, AND THE STATE, 1890-1930 (Urbana, 1994); Mary Odem, DELINQUENT DAUGHTERS: PROTECTING AND POLICING ADOLESCENT FEMALE SEXUALITY IN THE UNITED STATES, 1885-1920 (Chapel Hill, 1995); Muncy, CREATING A FEMALE DOMINION, Chapters 2 and 4.
(3) See, for instance, Nancy Cott, THE BONDS OF WOMANHOOD: "WOMAN'S SPHERE" IN NEW ENGLAND, 1780-1835 (New Haven, 1977); Barbara Welter, "The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-1860," AMERICAN QUARTERLY, 18 (Summer 1966): 151-174; Catherine Hall and Leonore Davidoff, FAMILY FORTUNES: MEN AND WOMEN OF THE ENGLISH MIDDLE CLASS, 1780-1850 (London, 1987). For an analysis of these spheres as cultural constructions, see Linda Kerber, "Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman's Place: The Rhetoric of Women's History," JOURNAL OF AMERICAN HISTORY, 75 (June 1988): 9-39.
(4) See, for instance, Anthony Rotundo, AMERICAN MANHOOD: TRANSFORMATIONS IN MASCULINITY IN VICTORIAN AMERICA (New York, 1993); Joe L. Dubbert, "Progressivism and the Masculinity Crisis," first published in THE PSYCHOANALYTIC REVIEW 61 (Fall 1974) and reprinted in Elizabeth and Joseph Pleck, eds. THE AMERICAN MAN (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1980), 303-320; Margaret Marsh, "Suburban Men and Masculine Domesticity, 1870-1915," AMERICAN QUARTERLY 40 (July 1988): 165-186; and Gail Bederman, MANLINESS AND CIVILIZATION: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF GENDER AND RACE IN THE UNITED STATES, 1880-1917 (Chicago, 1995); Clark Davis, "White-Collar Manhood: Careers and Success in Corporate Society," paper presented at the Annual Convention of the Social Science History Association, Atlanta, Georgia, October 1994; Robyn Muncy, "Trustbusting and White Manhood, 1898-1914," AMERICAN STUDIES, forthcoming.
(5) Albert Shaw, THE OUTLOOK FOR THE AVERAGE MAN (New York, 1907), 27.
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