Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Gendering the City, Gendering the Welfare State: The Nurses' Settlement of Richmond, 1900-1930

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Gendering the City, Gendering the Welfare State: The Nurses' Settlement of Richmond, 1900-1930

Article excerpt

In the fall of 1900, Nannie J. Minor, a nurse in Richmond, wrote to her friend, the novelist Mary Johnston, with the news that she and a group of her co-workers had "rented a house, and propose to begin a 'Nurses Settlement.'" Explicitly drawing on the example of "Northern cities" where social settlements were well established, Minor's vision of a nurses' settlement was simultaneously grand and modest: "we desire to cooperate with the various charity institutions of the city, such as Mother's Meeting, City mission, and any other organization of this character whose usefulness would be greatly enhanced by the assistance of these nurses." Soliciting both financial and moral support from Johnston, Nannie Minor foresaw "the success of a plan, which elsewhere has been indescribably helpful, not only to the inmates of the 'Settlement,' but a far-reaching power of usefulness to the community at large."1

The Nurses' Settlement that Minor helped to organize would serve multiple functions in Richmond in the coming decades, becoming in the process a critical civic institution for this New South city.2 Nurses and social workers at the settlement provided in-home ("visiting") nursing care to the poor; offered classes in cooking, hygiene, and baby-care; organized community recreation and other typical settlement house functions; and served as the site for training a new generation of female professionals and activists. The Nurses' Settlement nurtured the rise of public health nursing and social work in the city, helping to carve out new professional opportunities for women. Workers at the settlement were largely responsible for the creation of a school of social work in Richmond, one of the earliest such training schools in the South. In short, the Nurses' Settlement stood at the center of women's progressive activism in Richmond, acting as an incubator of southern progressivism and social welfare reform. Despite its centrality to events in the city and the region, the Nurses' Settlement has never been fully integrated into the histories of the period.3

This essay will examine the Nurses' Settlement during the heady years of its founding and expansion during the Progressive Era. Although mostly unknown to historians, this little organization was well known to thousands of Richmond residents and was an important social welfare institution in the city for decades. Women in particular benefited from the services of the Nurses' Settlement, which considered obstetrics, gynecology, and pediatrics to be its special domain. An analysis of the Nurses' Settlement offers the opportunity to reconsider southern progressivism and public welfare policy in light of the burgeoning scholarship on gender and social policy. Recent work has emphasized the importance of women and their organizations in the creation of the modern welfare state.4 Similarly, recent scholarly trends have seen women's activism as the "gendering of the city," as female reformers tried to ensure that municipal institutions reflected their values.5 Building on that scholarship, this essay sees the Nurses' Settlement as one of the South's most significant social welfare institutions, creating an open space for women's reform experiments, helping to shape the development of the city's civic institutions, and molding the nascent social welfare state to a positively gendered form. This essay also engages the ongoing debate about the nature of southern progressivism by highlighting the firm connections between southern and northern reform movements, thanks in large measure to the connections between southern and northern female reformers.6

When nurses Nannie Minor, Sadie Cabaniss, and Agnes Randolph went to work every day at the Old Dominion Hospital, they witnessed a city ripe for reform. Turn-of-the-century Richmond was a bustling commercial and industrial city, with the kind of diversified economy that would have made Henry Grady proud.7 Its population had grown rapidly since the Civil War, from just under 38,000 in 1860 to 85,000 in 1900. …

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