Shared birthday, connected lives
I remember precisely where I was in the Glenn G. Bartle library—what part of the stacks, which corner, what bench—when I realized that Lillian Wald and I shared the same birthday, on March 10th. I was a junior at State University of New York at Binghamton, enrolled in a U.S. women’s history course that was gradually changing the direction of my life. It was here that I discovered Lillian Wald, a Jewish woman who was deeply involved in American Progressives’ campaigns for immigrant, women’s, and civil rights, for public health and world peace.
As got to know more about Wald, now the subject of my undergraduate senior thesis, I did not dedicate a lot of energy to thinking about my relationship to her. Would our shared birthday make me see her through a rosier lens than I might otherwise? What impact would it have on my scholarly assessment of her life? Thoughts about my own subjectivity emerged in full force later, as the thesis grew into my doctoral dissertation and then a biography recently published by the University of North Carolina Press.
Sitting on that bench, all that I knew was that I admired her, and wanted to know more about her. With the naiveté of a twenty-one year old, I surmised that I could easily spend a year reading her letters and speeches on microfilm. And so I did. When the thesis was completed, my applications to American history graduate programs were in. I still felt, though, that there was a piece missing, and so I visited Wald’s institution, Henry Street Settlement House on New York’s Lower East Side.
Wald founded the Settlement in 1893, a few months after her twenty-sixth birthday. I began with that fact and then learned of her conventional, upper-class upbringing in Cincinnati and Rochester; her lack of a Jewish education; her decision to attend nursing school in Manhattan after she met the nurse who attended the birth of her sister’s child. As I pieced together Wald’s first years in New York City, I came to see the profound impact those years had on her life. She was surrounded by women who had made choices other than those of her mother, aunts, and sister. Wald described herself as completely fulfilled by her friendships with Mary Brewster, Lavinia Dock, and other nursing colleagues, along with women she would later meet, such as Jane Addams and Florence Kelley. As a lesbian, she was sustained too by her intimate, physical relationships with women throughout her life.
Within these women’s networks, and through her encounters with the industrial poor of New York, Wald’s thoughts on the need for cross-class and cross-race cooperation, for restraints and regulations on capitalism, and for active women’s roles began to crystallize. While teaching a home nursing class to Jewish immigrants downtown, Wald was taken by a child to a sick woman in a tenement, the family living in desperate conditions. She called this moment her “baptism of fire.” “Deserted were the laboratory and the academic work of college,” she wrote, “I never returned to them. My mind was intent on my own responsibility.”
That winter, she founded the Nurses’ Settlement, as Henry Street Settlement and the Visiting Nurse Service of New York were first called. It offered non-sectarian nurses’ visits to its neighbors, giving health care to the poor on a sliding fee scale. Wald’s cosmopolitan, secular Jewishness gave her audience with wealthy New York Jews, and they—especially financier Jacob Schiff—were the first benefactors of her work. With their help, her institution grew into a full-fledged settlement house. In my biography of Wald, I study her from these vantage points: as a nurse, a feminist, and a secular Jew. Above all, I charted her lifelong commitment to what she called the “mutuality” of society, the idea that the fate of one class of people was inseparable from any other.
I saw this living ideal of mutuality at Henry Street before I began graduate school, when my visit there grew into a summer job. Coincidentally, that year was the 100th anniversary of the Settlement, which continues to serve the needs of its diverse neighbors. (The Visiting Nurse Service of New York, now further uptown and independent, is also thriving.) I was in charge of the Greening Program, a cutting-edge environmental awareness group that was part of New York’s summer employment program for urban kids. At the huge, loud, joyful street festival that celebrated Henry Street’s centennial, I was in charge of the recycling. Never have I had a happier moment when dealing with garbage.
For the entire summer, really, I was in heaven, walking in Wald’s spaces. My colleagues – social workers who were huge fans of Wald’s – told me Wald ghost stories: footsteps in the attic, shadows in the hallways of Wald’s old haunts. At one lunch with my dear boss, I confessed the secret of our shared birthday. She urged me to investigate the numerological importance of 104, the number of years that separated Wald’s and my birth. I never did.
But the sense of our connectedness, born of historical accident, deepened over the years, as they would, no doubt, with any biographer and her subject. After the biography was published, colleagues would introduce me at conferences as “a woman who spent over a decade with Wald.” Indeed. Those years coincided with my making my own important, adult life choices. I am not romantic enough to think Wald guided me through those choices. But a birthday, and some political ideas: we share these. So as I mark the passage of time on our birthday each year, I look to her as someone who made me see what was—and still is—possible.
Marjorie N. Feld is an Associate Professor of History at Babson College, and author of Lillian Wald: A Biography.