- Lillian Wald: A Biography
According to Marjorie Feld, historians have failed to do justice to settlement worker Lillian Wald's religious and ethnic identity. Despite Wald's adherence to a nonsectarian universalism rooted in the Protestant Social Gospel and her personal resistance to particularist labels, Jewish historians continue to claim her as one of their own. At the same time, historians of women fail to deal with Wald's Jewish origins and instead focus almost exclusively on her feminism. Feld contends that Wald's designation as a feminist is problematic, too. Although Wald promoted women's rights, and gender was at the center of her social vision, her insistence on an essential nature for women ultimately distanced her from modern feminism.
Born in 1867 to an assimilated, secularized, upper-middle-class family of German Jews from Rochester, N.Y., by the late 1880s Wald had turned to nursing in her quest for "serious, definite work." This profession took her to New York City's Lower East Side, where she discovered the desperate need of immigrant communities for accessible health care. Determined to help meet this need, she persuaded wealthy benefactors, most notably financier Jacob Schiff (who became one of her closest friends), to finance a visiting nursing service. Over time this service grew into a social settlement that pursued an agenda of reforms designed, as Feld puts it, to "soften the rough edges of industrial capitalism (65)." As head worker at the Henry Street Settlement, Wald evolved into one of the city's most prominent advocates not only for public health reforms but also for the reform of municipal government, revision of tenement laws, legalization of labor unions, and protection of the rights of racial minorities, women, children, and immigrants.
Wald has received much less scholarly attention than Jane Addams, to whom she is often compared. For this reason alone, Feld's book is a welcome addition to Progressive-Era studies. Despite its title, however, it is less a biography than a critical analysis of Wald's social reform vision. Feld roots this vision in Wald's spiritual and gender identities which were formed in Wald's "hometown lessons," absorbed during her Rochester upbringing, on ethnic identity and gender difference. Carrying this theme throughout her book, Feld covers Henry Street and its programs, Wald's work for international peace, her publications, and her views on the Russian revolution, New Deal, Equal Rights Amendment, and Zionism. Feld presents these and other topics in a manner well informed by current scholarship on ethnic and cultural history.
While Feld's book is definitely useful, it leaves key questions unanswered. We never learn how Wald's nursing service "became" a social settlement, or why so many people came to love and admire her. We hear Wald's "voice" through excerpts from her letters and speeches, but we never get a systematic description of the evolution or political meaning of her public power. Feld provides only a few prose portraits of Wald's many friends and associates, and although she calls attention to the world of women activists in which Wald functioned, and hints at issues of homosexuality and homosociality, she [End Page 288] doesn't explore them. In short, much about Wald's life story remains to be explored.