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Settlement Houses: Lillian Wald

Visiting Nurse takes a shortcut over the roofs of the tenements.

At the turn of the 19th century, with more upper and middle class women attending college than ever before, those who graduated longed for meaningful work. A growing reform movement attracted many of these talented, educated women and it would inspire a new professional field — Social Work.

The Settlement house movement proved to be the most influential and far-reaching of urban reforms. Settlement house workers aimed to understand the challenges facing newly-arrived immigrants and help them adjust to life in crowded American cities. Armed with first-hand knowledge about terrible housing, exploitation in the workplace, lack of occupational safety, inadequate education opportunities and woeful health care, female reformers launched campaigns to address these urban problems.

Nurses stand in front of tenement building with children.

One such leader in the Settlement house movement was Lillian Wald , whose Henry Street Settlement and Visiting Nurse Association provided residents of New York City’s Lower East Side with indispensable community programs. A champion of Human Rights, Wald’s dedication won the hearts and respect of the immigrant community and the wrath of city officials. Wald viewed herself an agent of the poor, spending time in their homes and then speaking out against malnutrition and poor living conditions. She understood the sweeping reforms that were necessary to rectify these problems and tried to persuade local government officials that alleviating poverty was ultimately their responsibility.

Head Start teacher welcomes a child to her classroom at East Side House Settlement in the Bronx, ca. 1980’s.

While the settlement house movement was nationwide in scope, large cities such as New York and Chicago, with huge immigrant populations, were at the forefront. Women such as Wald and Jane Addams of Chicago’s Hull House created programs that addressed the poor living conditions in the community and provided cultural and leisure activities that eased the stress of daily life in a strange new land.



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