Settlement Women and Bureau Men: Constructing a Usable Past for Public Administration

By Stivers, Camilla | Public Administration Review, November-December 1995 | Go to article overview

Settlement Women and Bureau Men: Constructing a Usable Past for Public Administration


Stivers, Camilla, Public Administration Review


In the conclusion to his early monograph on the history of public administration in the United States, John Gaus (1930) argued that the field needed a "usable past:" studies that would bring to light "buried" aspects of its history and enrich discussions of social policy with administrative knowledge. Gaus commented

We make much of our newness; we can find materials for valuable civic standards and inspiration if we will assist by doing our share n the rewriting of our cultural history, richer by far than we permit our students to see (p. 138).

More than 60 years later, Guy B. Adams (1992) noted a similar lack of historical consciousness in public administration. Just as Gaus took us to task for "making much of our newness," Adams called the field "enthralled with modernity." He argued for particular attention to the Progressive era, a time period that the public administration community had widely ignored despite the availability of extensive historical scholarship. "Most often in the contemporary [public administration] literature, a ritual mention of [Woodrow] Wilson is followed by a jump to the present time with no historical analysis at all" (Adams, 1992; 365).

Why does the field of public administration need a usable past? I would like to offer one answer. Historical studies appear to support Adams' contention that the Progressive period is crucially important for public administration. Skowronek (1982), for example, maintained that the period from 1877 to 1920 marked the turning point from a national government structured around courts and parties, adequate to a polity that valued dispersed power and had little need for or interest in strategic action, to an administrative state capable of dealing with complex national, indeed global, challenges. Skowronek noted that the American state may be on the brink--or in the throes--of another transformation, in which the administrative state gives way to a new species, the outlines of which are only dimly seen at this point.

It may be difficult for us to envision the administrative state as a dying behemoth, but then Tammany Hall in 1910 probably had as little awareness that its days of hegemony were numbered. In order to understand and meet contemporary challenges to the administrative state such as the ones that have unfolded in the U.S. Congress and numerous state legislatures since the 1994 elections, we need a fuller sense of how a collection of perspectives and theories about bureaucracy and its role in governance coalesced and evolved into the field of public administration. The field did not spring full-blown from Woodrow Wilsoris (1887) brow. As Rosenbloom has observed, "In some respects, `orthodox' public administration theory has been the political ideology of dominant political groups" (1993; 1). We need to know more than we do about the sources of our ideas--about whom they (and we) serve.

In this article, I suggest that Progressive-movement ideas and practice (from which grew the academic field of public administration) separated substance (what the state ought to do) from procedure (how the state ought to do what it does). I also suggest that gender stereotypes of the time were at least partly responsible for this split, and that subsequently, the field took its shape based more on the procedural than the substantive, a move that has had important consequences.

The Progressive reform movement was one in which both men and women played leading roles, as recent scholarship has made abundantly clear. The "municipal housekeeping" efforts of middle-class white women's clubs, the institution-building undertaken by black women's organizations especially in the South, the development of settlement houses, women's advocacy of legislation regulating working conditions, and setting up fledgling social welfare efforts-an outpouring of studies has documented these and other accomplishments (e.g., Frankel and Dye, 1991; McCarthy, 1990; Muncy, 1991; Skocpol, 1992). …

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