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Lillian Wald: American Progressive

Tue, December 18, 12:45 to 2:15pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Harborview 3 Ballroom


Biographies of Lillian Wald (1867-1940) see her first as a pioneering "Progressive Activist," and indeed Clare Coss chose those very words as the title of one of the first books to historicize Wald's life. Trained as a nurse, Wald championed the public health issues of New York City's early twentieth-century industrial poor, who became her neighbors when she moved to the Lower East Side to found the Henry Street Settlement House in 1893. In his 2014 book Progressive Inequality, historian David Huyssen notes that unlike most Progressives, who relied on data, Wald chose instead to speak in anecdotes that humanized the poor and alerted public officials and private philanthropists of the need for reform. Huyssen terms this as Wald's "cooperative spirit of engagement" with the poor. In my 2008 Lillian Wald: A Biography, I argued that this spirit reflected Wald's philosophy of "mutuality," her belief in mutual interdependence of peoples across lines of class, race, religion, and ethnicity.
In this paper, I return to the question of what role Wald's Jewishness played in her vision of mutuality and its relationship to her Progressive activism. Raised in a secular and wealthy household, Wald hailed from prestigious Jewish ancestry yet had no Jewish education and was in fact deeply ambivalent toward her own Jewishness. I locate Wald's faith in immigration assimilation in her own family's successful integration into white society, and show how her Jewishness manifested in class and culture. This provided her a secure place in the elite Jewish networks on which she relied throughout her career.
Though Wald's discomfort with Jewish particularism would have led her to reject inclusion in a panel on Jewish Progressives, studying how she positioned herself within Jewish and Progressive networks reveals the promise and pitfalls of placing Jews in the center of studies of United States historical currents like Progressivism. I will conclude my paper with thoughts about how we remember Wald in this moment of 2018, and what that might tell us about contemporary American Jews and urban liberalism.