Primary Source Set: Women's Philanthropic Work in Philadelphia

Created by Jayne Clauss, Bachelors in Education Candidate at Temple University, with the In Her Own Right team.


From the 1800s to early 1900s, the ideals of womanhood changed, as women tried to establish themselves as independent beings with autonomous minds. This task was both ambitious and laborious because only some women could work towards this goal. Elite, white, and Christian women were considered, by their male counterparts, to be the superior part of the gender, making their voices the most relevant. These women wanted change and, because they had the respect of men, assumed if they could garner respect for the rest of womenkind, it would aid in their goal. This often manifiested in coercive efforts by women-led organizations to make other, frequently immigrant, women more "respectable."

Women’s philanthropic work often shared this coercive bent, especially when it came to "Americanizing" other women. The Philadelphia region had a large immigrant population which meant that there were an abundance of opportunities for women activists leading organizations or working independently. Although the goal of this advocacy was to change women, not all women were deemed worthy. Activist leaders attempted to make the women they were assisting more Christian, whiter--more like themselves. They believed this would advance disadvantaged women.

The documents and photographs in this primary source set provides examples of both the work of women who were leading the advocacy movement as well as reactions from the women who were considered viable recipients of the aid and advocacy being provided by the movement.

For more on the tension between women's philanthropy and self-determination, see the essays Breaking Ground on Race and Class and Philanthropy or Self-Determination on the In Her Own Right website.

Educational Purpose

This primary source set illustrates the complexities of activism and how issues of class affected struggles for gender equality. Its focus on the impacts of Pennsylvania women engages a local focus, encouraging Pennsylvania students to look for real world connections to their local communities.

Grade Levels

This set can be tailored for grades 9-12.

State Standards

Secondary Standards Grades 9-12, 8.1. Historical Analysis and Skills Development

8.1.U.A. Evaluate patterns of continuity and change over time, applying context of events.

8.1.9.B. Compare the interpretation of historical events and sources, considering the use of fact versus opinion, multiple perspectives, and cause and effect relationships.

Secondary Standards Grades 9-12, Pennsylvania History

8.2.9.B. Compare the impact of historical documents, artifacts, and places in Pennsylvania which are critical to U.S. history.

8.2.U.D. Evaluate how conflict and cooperation among groups and organizations in Pennsylvania have influenced the growth and development of the U.S.

Secondary Standards Grades 9-12, United States History

8.3.9.A. Compare the role groups and individuals played in the social, political, cultural, and economic development of the U.S.

Source Set

1. The Improvement of a Street, 1902

A pamphlet written by Helen Parrish of the Octavia Hill Association which highlights the work that was being done to improve a street which has a high foreign population.

What is important to note in this pamphlet is what the women advocates changed in these streets to improve them, revealing what were believed to be acceptable means of living.

View item information

View full item

2. Annual Report, Tenement House Division, 1910

A report written by the Philadelphia Bureau of Public Health to thank the philanthropic organizations that were changing the poor sections of the city.

This report illustrates the coercive nature of women-led philanthropic organizations. It also supports the idea that elite white women’s ideals were the most respected.

View item information

View full item

3. Female Association of Philadelphia for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances Board of Directors Report, 1804

Report written by a female association that describes who is receiving aid.

Changing ideals of womanhood are demonstrated in the report's explicit statements that the association is offering aid to fewer people and focusing on widows. This report highlights who was seen as worthy of aid from philanthropic organizations.

View item information

View full item

4. Magdalen Society of Philadelphia matron's diary, 1906-1908

This diary shows reports of women who were being helped by this society.

This diary is exceptional in illustrating the women and the ways they were being altered by those who were trying to help them. There are also explicit examples of reforming the inmates through work and prayer.

View item information

View full item

5. An Object Lesson in What a Neighborhood Can Do to Abate a Nuisance, 1896

This four-page pamphlet provides explicit statements about perceived positive changes being made in tenement neighborhoods accompanied by images.

This source provides information about what it means to change the conditions that people live in. By forcing a change in the way that someone is living, the advocates caused the individuals to change. The before and after images show change in the outfits of the children.

View item information

View full item

6. Committee of 22 minutes, 1917-1918

This report is minutes of a meeting that records how the Y.W.C.A was considering creating a separate organization for women of color.

The first page of this report highlights exactly what the committee is planning to create and why they are considering creating it. It reveals that they believe African Americans need the help of a women’s organization but a separate one from those of white people. This shows examples of who is considered worthy of the help of societies.

View item information

View full item

7. Real Estate Management Service, 1898

This is a four-page pamphlet published by the Octavia Hill Association that gives advice on how to manage tenement buildings.

The second page reveals the intrusive nature of life in tenement houses that are rented by the Octavia Hill Association and reveals the coercive nature that could be seen in women’s advocacy.

View item information

View full item

8. Philanthropy and Four Per Cent; For the Better Housing of the Poor, 1908

Collection of photos and captions that show the ways the Octavia Hill Association aided in housing.

The images in this pamphlet, along with the introduction on the first page, reveal the constituencies focused on by the association.

View item information

View full item

9. Magdalen Society of Philadelphia future plans, 1917-1918

Four-page pamphlet that describes what the Magdalen Society hopes to provide for girls.

Specific focus on the fourth page of the pamphlet that announces the addition of five board members to include more girls in the program. It shows women’s advocacy beginning to spread and can be compared with earlier documents that limit who is going to gain aid from women’s associations.

View item information

View full item

Teaching Guide

Discussion Questions

  • Primary source #3 and primary source #9 describe women who were believed to be worthy of receiving aid from women’s advocacy associations but #3 was written in the 1800s while #9 was written in 1917. Compare and contrast how the scope of women who deserved help changed over a century.
  • Use sources #1, #4, and #5 to explain how women’s advocacy associations encouraged assimilation of immigrants. Explore the photographs in these sources along with the descriptions of families that were receiving help to assist in your response.
  • Use primary sources #7 and #8 together to connect the written proof of the invasive nature of the Octavia Hill Association’s work in its tenements and how that is then revealed through photographs.
  • Source #6 reveals that women of color were being encouraged to form their own activism circles rather than joining the ones already created. Discuss how women of color were excluded from activism in Philadelphia and what this says about the exclusiveness of women’s advocacy.
  • Many times, housing associations were coercive in changing their tenement residents' ways of living to make them worthy of advocacy. Explore sources #1, #4, #7, and #8 and discuss ways that associations were coercive towards their tenants and who was considered worthy of advocacy.

Classroom Activities

  • Many of these sources highlight the type of women who were seen as suitable to receive the benefits of advocacy, such as admission into programs like YWCA and receiving help from housing associations. Imagine the Octavia Hill Association is looking for new tenants for their houses, and create a poster that defines what type of person they will be looking for and what they expect from that person.
  • Divide students into groups of three. In each group there will be one person who embodies a member of the Octavia Hill Association, one who represents the Female Association of Philadelphia for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances, and one who represents the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia. Each student receives a different primary source from this set to help them create their part of the skit. The Octavia Hill Association member receives primary source #1, the Female Association of Philadelphia member receives primary source #3, and the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia member receives primary source #4. Ask students to create a skit in which they explain their organization's purpose and intended recipients and pitch its services. After they have completed their pitches, each group will discuss who is served and who is not served by these organizations.

About this Guide

This teaching guide helps instructors use a specific primary source set in the classroom. It offers discussion questions, classroom activities, and primary source analysis tools. It is intended to spark pedagogical creativity by giving a sample approach to the material. Please feel free to share, reuse, and adapt the resources in this guide for your teaching purposes.

Additional Resources