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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 370

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This is the grave of Lillian Wald.

Born in 1867 to a middle-class and secular Jewish family in Cincinnati, Wald’s family moved to Rochester in the late 1870s. She applied to Vassar College in 1883. Vassar claimed she was too young; whether her ethnicity had anything to with that decision is not something I can really discover, but I wouldn’t doubt it. Her family was pretty wealthy by this time, so she traveled extensively in Europe over the next few years. Then the young Wald made a pretty different choice than the liberal arts colleges of wealthy women–she became a nurse. She graduated from the New York Hospital Training School for Nurses in 1891 and then went to work in the poorest neighborhoods of New York. She was going to on to medical school and become a doctor but by 1893, was in the Lower East Side teaching basic nursing to immigrant Jewish women at the Hebrew Technical School for Girls.

This was the Progressive Era. Young single middle-class women such as Jane Addams and Florence Kelley had basically invented the field of social work, as they searched for something useful to do with their education in a world of great inequality and a world where the professions were male-only. Wald tapped into this. She founded the Henry Street Settlement in 1893, one of the most important settlement houses outside of Hull House. Still active today, Wald made it work by connecting with the wealthy Jewish philanthropist Jacob Schiff, who bought a townhouse for Wald to use. Wald, working with other wealthy New York Jews, was able to expand the settlement to cover most of a block, slowly buying building after building. She pioneered all sorts of important things through the settlement, such as the one of the city’s first modern playgrounds in 1902 to get kids off the street and funding the city’s first public school nurse in the same year. By 1906, Wald had hired 27 nurses and by 1913, there were 92 people on staff. Still focused on public health, it became a central institution in the New York community during Wald’s lifetime. Wald also trained nurses in treating people like human beings, no matter how much money they had. To say the least, bedside manner to the poor was not a priority. Wald thought that was dehumanizing. She also worked with Columbia University to start its nursing program in 1910 and she was the first president of the National Organization for Public Health Nursing in 1912.

She also believed very strongly in women’s employment, both for middle-class women like herself, but also for married women, for it would give them more independence from their husbands. Like other settlement leaders, Wald was also a leader in labor reform. She helped found the Women’s Trade Union League in 1903 and was an early leader of what became the National Child Labor Committee. She worked hard on safe working conditions and lobbied for health inspections of workplaces. She was a founding member of the NAACP, whose first conference began at the Henry Street Settlement. Wald organized suffrage protests in New York, opposed U.S. involvement during World War I and was very involved in the peace movement, even after the U.S. entered the conflict. Wald was close to women such as Florence Kelley and Eleanor Roosevelt. When Wald turned 70, Sara Roosevelt, FDR’s mother, read a letter from the president on a radio show praising her for his amazing life and work. Wald wrote two books to promote her work and her beliefs, 1911’s The House on Henry Street and 1934’s Windows on Henry Street. Wald died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1940. She was 73 years old.

Lillian Wald is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, New York.

If you would like this series to visit more Progressive Era women leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jane Addams is buried in Cedarville, Illinois while Clara Lemlich is in West Babylon, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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