Always a Sister: The Feminism of Lillian D. Wald

A biography by Doris Groshen Daniels New York: The Feminist Press, 1990 224pp., $24.95

Why do we know so little about this larger-than-life, extraordinary figure? Lillian Wald was the founder of the Henry Street Settlement House and the Visiting Nurses Association, and a notable activist in the labor movement, the woman’s suffrage movement and the peace movement (during World War I). She was one of the preeminent social reformers of the Progressive era.

Is she unknown because of a kind of latent anti-Semitism? (After all, Jane Ad-dams, that other venerable settlement house founder, is very well known, as is Hull House in Chicago, that stern Quaker hotbed of idealism.)

Is she unknown because of a bias against nursing? Wald’s roots and major identity were in nursing, a field much undervalued and maligned. (Wald created the profession of public health nurse.)

Daughter of well-to-do immigrant parents, Wald grew up in the German-Jewish community of Rochester, New York. Although as an adult she became involved in Ethical Culture, she always identified as a Jew, and she used her German-Jewish connections brilliantly to raise money in the Jewish banking community of New York.

Wald was very much at home with the rich and the powerful (and she appreciated fine clothing and cultivated good looks), but she lived almost her entire adult life in a settlement house in a poor neighborhood, and even brought her mother to live there with her after she was widowed. The nurses at the house were a tight, compatible group, and Wald seems to have had close, loving relationships with them.

Nursing, during those years, was an exciting part of the women’s movement. Wald was at the center of a progressive community that was run by strong, remarkable females who concentrated on the special health needs of women. This book reminds us of her many accomplishments.

Editor’s note: An excellent new sourcebook, Lillian D. Wald, Progressive Activist, edited by Clare Coss (New York: The Feminist Press, 1989), includes Wald’s speeches, correspondence and a one-woman play based on her life.

Mary Cahn Schwartz is a social worker in private practice in Washington, DC.