Before the changes in woman’s industrial position, in her education, and consequently in her modes of life which mark this century, the charities of women were, for the most part, dispensed within their own homes, to their dependents and to wandering mendicants, or in the wards of hospitals and asylums, where they volunteered occasional service occasional service as visitors or gave regular service as members of visiting or resident sisterhoods. Prior to the changes referred to, women’s charities were chiefly private; the world expected men to devise all schemes of charity, and to execute all excepting those involving personal attendance. In proportion as women have entered the lists of the world’s paid workers, in proportion as the laws have recognized their separate existence and separate financial responsibility, in that proportion has their sense of responsibility for the maintenance of public charities grown.

As the separation of different classes of prisoners — first of paupers and debtors and the physically infirm from habitual criminals; second, of first offenders from habitués; third, of women from men — followed women’s prison work, so the differentiation of classes among those who are the recipients of help from strangers has grown with women’s personal and pecuniary freedom to act. The separation of paupers from prisoners was a great step; the separation of the enfeebled, the infirm, the defective from paupers physically robust, whose poverty is the result of moral infirmity and of laziness, was another great step. This differentiation was followed necessarily by the establishment of separate institutions for the blind, for the deaf and dumb, for the insane, and for the feeble-minded.

History's Women: Misc. Articles: The Modification of the Methods of Charity by Women in the 19th Century - Prisoners

Prisoners in the 19th Century

At the present time, in our own country, for the most part, the paid officials who govern such institutions are men. In some states the law requires that the boards of visitors and inspectors shall include women. In states where this is not the case, by their own solicitation women have become visitors and inspectors of such institutions. In most such institutions women are employed as matrons, nurses, teachers, and caretakers.

The evolution of charity is an interesting study. In its first stage it classed all of its objects together, and treated all alike, without any reference to their respective conditions or to the varying causes of such conditions. Next it classified and separated them, and then organized them so as to bring together into conscious reciprocal relationship the institutions and associations so painstakingly set apart.

The phrase, “Organized Charities,” suggests the change from incidental, unrelated response to the appeal of suffering to regular, consecutive appropriation. It measures the advance from impulse to principle. Almost if not all of these changes have been initiated by individuals. The number of women engaged in charities, acting not from individual motive, but as factors of organizations to which the charities of a community have been committed, is large.

As fruit of personal contact between the charitable and the recipients of charity various educational schemes have arisen. For example, in the visitation and administration of hospitals, homes, and asylums, women discovered the need for trained nurses. The establishment of training schools in connection with hospitals, which was at first attacked as another means of weaning women more and more from home, has ended, as all other such altruistic enterprises do, in returning into the homes women better educated for their delicate tasks. In their visitation of the sick poor, women learned under what deplorable conditions infancy was reared, and the kindergarten for the poor is a result.

The number of women throughout the world who are doing important service by visiting, inspecting, and managing boards of local, municipal, state, and national institutions would certainly mount up into the scores of thousands; while women who are organized to raise the funds which support this work number hundreds of thousands. As this form of organized work is almost the first in which women in a country engaged, they may be said to have gotten their training for greater efforts through such boards. Out of the small effort necessary to organize, equip, and conduct some private local enterprise, such as an orphans’ home, a home for dependent girls, or a home for aged men and women, have grown the powers which have enabled women to organize, devise, and maintain the National Health Protective Association, the National Consumers’ League, and other organizations which anticipate legislative aid and secure the cooperation of philanthropists and sociologists in the perfection and development of their plans.


Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.