Women played an important role in shaping the field of social science research. Yet, their contributions are largely left out of the narrative. In Mary Ann Dzuback’s article, Women Scholars, Social Science Expertise, and the State in the United States (2009), Dzuback sheds light on some of these lost narratives and examines several women’s paths to pursue research, establish professional authority, and ultimately influence public policy during the Progressive Era. The breadth of their work spanned from child welfare, immigration, to labor conditions. They studied impoverished, vulnerable, and oppressed populations on local and regional levels to better understand the problems within the larger social and economic context. Backed by scientific methodology, these studies earned them a new form of intellectual power that was based on academic merit. Comparable to their male counterpart’s professional culture of expertise, Dzuback argues, this newly acquired intellectual power gave them authority in shaping the modern state.
However, the voices of the women scholars were challenged by cultural barriers in society, as well as tensions within their own institutions. According to Dzuback, women academics fought tirelessly to establish a separate identity from their successors in charitable organizations. “Friendly visitors” from philanthropic organizations, used moral reasoning as a guide to provide social aid. By contrast, women academics used surveys and developed tools of social research to methodically identify problems worth investigating. Their findings exposed the underlying causes of social dysfunction, which they used to inform effective interventions and shape welfare policy.
Elaborating on the success of women researchers, historian Robyn Muncy explores the network of organizations and institutions powered by women during the Progressive Era, and their (largely unrecognized) continued legacy into the New Deal era. In her dissertation, Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890-1935, Muncy argues this legacy was made possible by their efforts to professionalize their values, bureaucratize their methods, and to institutionalize their various organizations (1987).
The early voluntary movements empowered women to participate in the public sphere. From the early 1890’s, a growing body of ambitious women established a professional culture (the female dominion) by carving out new areas of work that wouldn’t be in direct competition of men with jobs. Namely, working with vulnerable populations such as children, immigrants, and women. Muncy argues their success and ambitions were allowed to grow as a result of two important factors. First, they satisfied “the Victorian imperative for women to serve the children and the poor” (p.25). Second, their clientele could not afford to pay for their services, therefore women professionals sought funding from wealthy benefactors (and later the government). This particular position allowed women to advance their professional careers on the platform of service rather than profit, which diverged from the male professional ethos of charging for expertise.
Muncy describes the development of the dominion’s three distinct characteristics: “its femaleness, its monopoly over child welfare policy, and its commitment to public service” (4). At its height, the dominion established publicly funded bureaus (such as the Children’s Bureau) which received consistent financial support from the government. However, the dominion reached a ceiling once it took on issues that were traditionally dominated by men, such as the medical industry. The female dominion were generalist practitioners. Meaning, they approached healthcare with a person-in-environment perspective and understood that structural problems, such as poverty, sanitation, and housing conditions, had a direct effect on health outcomes. Breckinridge and Abbot explained the unique role of a social worker, which “operated at the center of a complicated web of professions and were inextricably bound to practitioners of law, medicine, and education” (168). Men, however, held a much narrower definition to the same problem with a disease-model approach, which required the expertise of a professional to treat. The clash of professional identities (women’s commitment to service, versus men’s commitment to commodifying expertise) within the public health services led to conflict, as the dominion’s shifting attention to public health was seen as a threat to many medical professional’s incomes.
On top of the conflict with the male-dominated medical industry, Muncy argues the dominion faced challenges brought on by the changing political climate. Particularly, they received public pushback from fanatical opponents such as anti-feminists, state’s rights theorists, and red-baiters. Losing the battle, Muncy claims many women downplayed their role as professional experts, to having special interests by virtue of being a woman. This fallback confirmed cultural stereotypes that women could not be ‘scientific,’ but their abilities were guided by female intuition, which ultimately discredited their place in supporting the monopoly on public policy.
The fate of the dominion’s diminishing status was sealed as the Roosevelt administration introduced an influx of federal social welfare programs which simultaneously pushed women out. Muncy argues, however imperfectly it played out, it was still considered a win for their progressive agenda. The Social Security Act was drafted by Abbott and early members of the Children’s Bureau. From the dominion, numerous women moved on to hold important roles in other areas of policymaking. However, the dispersal of child welfare programs did dissolve the dominion’s monopoly. In conclusion, Muncy argues that the female dominion was truly a “women’s rights movement in professional, bureaucratic, institutional guise” (191). She argues that the female professions were not the result of a gendered, discriminatory grouping, but a strategic separatist feminist movement. Though, this was unsustainable as many women abandoned the strategy in attempts to integrate themselves within the male professional world.
Muncy, R. L. (1987). Creating a female dominion in American reform, 1890-1930 (Order No. 8723690). ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, (303594289). Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.mutex.gmu.edu/docview/303594289?accountid=14541