Boston's Wayward Children: Social Services for Homeless Children, 1830-1930

By Peter C. Holloran | Go to book overview

3
Wayward Girls in Boston

The homeless or unsupervised girl posed a special problem to nineteenth- century Bostonians, one very different and more perplexing than that of the wayward or delinquent boy. Charity workers took a generally pessimistic view of their work with homeless girls and women, one reflecting the double standard imposed on the "weaker sex" and supported by a variety of moral and medical opinions that the female invariably had a weaker mind to match her more delicate body. If women were still spiritually superior to men, their moral lapse was all the more awful. Even sympathetic women engaged in child-saving expressed doubts about the reformation of homeless girls who had known the seamy side of slum life:

The homeless boy is a sufficiently pitiful object, but the girl child fares even worse. The boy is often less perverted than he seem. His sins belong to his ignorance and his condition, and drop away under an entire change of environment. . . . For the girl there is less chance in every way.1

Why should girls be less susceptible to social and moral reform in the eyes of Victorian child-savers? Aside from male supremacist notions, tradition saddled the homeless and wayward girl (the two being considered inevitably linked) with a much heavier penalty for her sins than boys had to bear. The girl who lived in urban slums without proper guardians was believed vulnerable to moral temptations almost impossible to resist. Her past was held against her as his seldom was, and she felt herself handicapped socially by poverty and the lack of respectability. Child-savers expressed hope for virtuous poor girls, but for those who sacrificed virginity for pleasure or profit, the "angel corrupted became a devil, and a woman abandoned to treachery and lust became a mournful wreck" in Victorian America. Boys were considered more redeemable than girls because a vagabond boy might, in the popular imagination, be strength- ened by the school of hard knocks and mature into a successful man like the impoverished bootblack, Ragged Dick, in Horatio Alger's novels.2 The loss of sexual innocence was irreversible for the female, and her sin was believed to doom her to a life of total corruption or at least to place her

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Boston's Wayward Children: Social Services for Homeless Children, 1830-1930
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 5
  • Acknowledgments 7
  • Acronyms and Abbreviations 9
  • Introduction 13
  • 1 - Boston Protestant Charity for Children 24
  • 2 - Boston Catholic Charity for Children 63
  • 3 - Wayward Girls in Boston 105
  • 4 - Separate but Unequal: Black, Jewish, and Italian Child-Saving 137
  • 5 - The Boston Juvenile Court and Clinic 197
  • Epilogue 247
  • Notes 255
  • Select Bibliography 303
  • Index 321
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