Off-campus UMass Amherst users: To download dissertations, please use the following link to log into our proxy server with your UMass Amherst user name and password.

Non-UMass Amherst users, please click the view more button below to purchase a copy of this dissertation from Proquest.

(Some titles may also be available free of charge in our Open Access Dissertation Collection, so please check there first.)

Entitled to relief: Poor women, charity, and medicine, 1900-1920

Marilyn Schultz Blackwell, University of Massachusetts Amherst


A case study in the politics of social provision, this dissertation uncovers the origins of a legal dispute between directors of a charitable trust and its female beneficiaries during the Progressive Era. In 1919 the poor women of Brattleboro, Vermont, legatees of the Thomas Thompson Trust, sued the Boston-based charity for mismanagement and demanded increased benefits and a role in monitoring trust allocations. An examination of charity case records, legal testimony, and local resources reveals the roots of their collective action in the experience of getting help. At a time when reformers were reconstructing charity to accommodate the shift from a moral to scientific approach to poverty, the case reveals the gender and class relations that shaped social policy. Highlighting the perspective of charity clients, the study shows how both providers and the needy constructed charity policy. Over the course of two decades, interaction among charity administrators, middle-class women, visiting nurses and poor, mostly native-born white women resulted in a medical definition of female poverty. Increased access to medical care and health education led beneficiaries to fashion a definition of female worthiness that combined recognition of their wage-earning with protection and support for ill health and old age. The shift from a moral to physical explanation of female poverty strengthened poor women's claims to direct relief while it encouraged charity administrators to develop health programs and to cultivate public support. Despite an alliance with civic leaders seeking local control over charitable funds, poor women failed to attain legal recognition of their claims, but they nonetheless modified trust policy. The redefinition of female poverty as a medical problem bolstered women's sense of entitlement and expanded health services for the poor and working-class community. Improved access to health experts, however, did little to resolve poor women's economic difficulties and helped undermine their sense of self-sufficiency as they adapted to middle-class assumptions about female weakness and invalidity.

Subject Area

American history|Social work|Nursing|Welfare

Recommended Citation

Blackwell, Marilyn Schultz, "Entitled to relief: Poor women, charity, and medicine, 1900-1920" (1996). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9619374.