Frances Kellor and the Americanization Movement

By Murdach, Allison D. | Social Work, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Frances Kellor and the Americanization Movement


Murdach, Allison D., Social Work


Social work's current concern with topics such as ethnic sensitive practice, immigration, diversity, and assimilation (de Silva, 2006; Marsh, 2004) marks a rebirth of interest in issues that once dominated the thinking of early social work pioneers (Addams, 1961). This article reconsiders the career of Frances Kellor, a social work leader who early in the early 20th century championed many progressive causes, particularly those involving the civil rights, protection, and education of immigrants (Higham, 1973).

At the peak of her influence in the decade leading up to and including World War I, Kellor was as well known nationally as such social work luminaries as Jane Addams and Florence Kelly. Her public renown declined swiftly in the decade after the war, and although she continued to build a distinguished social work career in the field of conflict management and arbitration, her accomplishments are little recognized today. We explore some of the reasons for this dismissal by history at the conclusion of this article.

A LEADER OF MEN

The phrase "a leader of men" was applied to Kellor by one of her admirers at the height of her fame (Kellor, 1921) and aptly describes her hard-driving personality. Even during her early years she showed the ability to rise above great adversity. She was born in 1873 in Columbus, Ohio. Her father deserted the family during Kellor's childhood, and her mother was forced to move to a rural area in Michigan and take work as a laundress. Kellor could not afford to finish high school and had to go to work for a local newspaper as a typesetter, eventually advancing to the position of investigative reporter. She caught the attention of two wealthy sisters, Mary and Frances Eddy, who helped to finance her education at Cornell University Law School, from which she graduated with a law degree in 1897. On the basis of her achievements, Kellor was granted a scholarship to study sociology and social work at the University of Chicago, where she lived at Hull House and earned supplementary income employed as a gymnastic instructor. Here she wrote her first scholarly article calling for equality in physical education for men and women. While at Chicago she did field work in southern prisons and used this experience as a basis for her first book, Experimental Sociology (published in 1901). In 1903 Kellor moved to New York and took up residence at the Henry Street settlement, where she embarked on a study of joblessness among women. This work helped to focus her concerns on the difficulties of immigrants and other minorities in gaining equal treatment and opportunity in U.S. society.

Her work on behalf of immigrants eventually caught the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, who sought Kellor's assistance in developing immigration policy during his administration. Several years later when Roosevelt was out of office, he again sought Kellor's help on formulating immigration policy ideas when he ran for president on the Progressive party ticket in 1912. In the years prior to World War I, Kellor became an often published and nationally known authority on immigration issues. She was especially prominent in organizing national efforts to help immigrants gain increased access and opportunities in U.S. society through Americanization citizenship programs. After the war, when interest in Americanization collapsed, she began an intensive study of mediation and arbitration methods of resolving domestic and international conflict. She became a national authority on these subjects, also publishing extensively in this area (Koesterer, 2002). Kellor died in New York in 1952.

THE AMERICANIZATION MOVEMENT

Although her involvement in the Americanization movement was only one aspect of Kellor's long and productive career, it has become the contribution for which she is best remembered (Miller, 1997). "Americanization" was a term used to describe early efforts in this country to quickly assimilate the newly arriving waves of immigrants into the fabric of American life. …

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