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Biography's Window on Social Change: Benevolence and Justice in Jane Addams's "A Modern Lear" Louise W. Knight Historians who have studied American women's practice of benevolence in the nineteenth century recently have stressed its function as an ideology—its power to stir middle-class women to social activism and its role in shaping their sense of class and gender identity.1 Those in power could remain so without guilt, benevolence promised, if they accepted their responsibUities for those who were weaker. According to Anne Scott, benevolence was "a quality that good Christians were expected to exhibit, especiaUy those whom God had favored with health, wealth, and standing in the community."2 Armed with this rationale, women of the middle classes poured their considerable organizing energies into addressing the needs of the "worthy" poor and other "dependents" (in the language of the day) and, in the process, established new pubtic roles for women of their class. The women's wholehearted embrace of the ethic of benevolence was not surprising because it permeated their lives, starting in their families. There, as daughters first, and later as wives and mothers, they retied on the kindnesses of men: fathers, husbands, and adult sons. Forbidden to work outside the home, prosperous women depended on men for their material well-being. Instructed to obey fathers and husbands, women learned to be grateful to the men who denied them power. Benevolence defined gender relations in the nineteenth century. In a smoothly operating benevolent society, the poor, like women in the family, were not expected to have a voice. Rather, they were only to be grateful and obedient. This denial of the poor's right to represent their own interests was hardly noticed by middle-class benevolent women. As Scott writes, "It did not occur to most of them that it was presumptuous to tell poorer people what they should want or how they should behave."3 They remained unaware of the extent to which the practice, as Lori Ginzberg has observed, served their own class interests.4 The ethic of benevolence was not intended to govern aU human relations but only those of unequal status and power. While, as American historians have thoroughly explored, the ethic of benevolence was regularly employed by those in power (businessmen, slaveowners, male citizens , husbands and fathers, upper-class women) to justify their right and responsibility to make decisions for others (employees, slaves, women cit- © 1997 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 9 No. ι (Spring) 112 Journal of Women's History Spring izens, wives and adult daughters, the poor), a separate ethic—the ethic of individualism—was invoked for relations among equals or potential equals.5 Not intended as an ethic for women, individuaUsm was the ethic that governed economic relations among men of the middle and upper classes and justified the right of the (male) individual to pursue his own self-interest.6 It was the ethic of the smaU businessman, who employed his brother-in-law at a low wage and of the wealthy industrialist who employed thousands of workers at even lower wages.7 Surface contradictions aside, benevolence was understood by contemporaries to be entirely compatible with the pursuit of self-interest, as intellectual historian James Kloppenberg has pointed out.8 Indeed, the ethic of benevolence taught the (male) individual that his attempts to advance his own interests would naturaUy serve the common good, and that there need not be a conftict between personal desire and social justice.9 Those who embraced the ethic of individual benevolence—a group which included many women—betieved that all society benefitted when the (white) upper classes decided what was best. Benevolence, they held, delivered social justice in its results.10 But those without clout—the poor, which included most African Americans and many immigrants, and women—did not always desire what others had chosen for them. What they wanted, as their words in the historical record make clear, was the respect of others and the right to decide for themselves. John Stuart MuI, leading poUtical theorist of the century, expressed the general sentiment when he defined justice as "the respect of each for the rights of every other and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 111-138
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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