Physical and Moral Health
DURING THE WINTER OF 1907, the Atlanta Georgian published an editorial describing an Atlanta woman, “young, beautiful and of noble character,” who suffered from consumption. This white widow worked as a sales clerk in a department store to support her child from “a brief but happy marriage.” When she became “too ill to continue working,” the article read, she could only sit and look “with despairing eyes toward her baby.” In language remarkably similar to that used by welfare agencies to describe the “virtuous mother” of the 1900s, the editorial highlighted a mother of much dignity and respectability, able to maintain her manners, beauty, and “noble character” in the face of death. She was lauded for her commitment to her child and her restraint in not asking for help. And it was precisely through her continued respectability that she became heroic. These qualities, the editors of the Atlanta Georgian argued, commanded the men and women of Atlanta to give her “one last chance for life which she cannot seize herself.”1 The story proved to be, as the newspaper had intended, the spark needed to launch an organized campaign against tuberculosis.
The image of respectability embedded in the widow’s story portrayed a picture of worthiness—this woman deserved aid as a reward for her upright life. Representing this woman as a mother sacrificing for her only child rewrote her wage work as necessary and reinforced a gendered social structure in which women functioned not as independent persons but in relation to the family members they served and supported. Her race undoubtedly reinforced her worthiness for assistance in the eyes of the Georgian’s white readers, and she came to represent the innocent victims struck down by disease in an uncaring city. Notions of protection became central to campaigns to rid the city of tuberculosis and later venereal disease. By the 1910s, however, Atlanta’s public health movement relied on a varied set of images and a more complex understanding of who and what needed protecting. At some moments in these later years, working-class women still appeared as the most vulnerable component of society. At others, the imagery tied working-class women of both races to disease as agents of contagion