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The Arm of the School Which Extends into the Home: The Visiting Teacher Movement, 1906 to 1940

by Anne Meis Knupfer - 1999

This article traces the development of the visiting teacher movement, from 1906 to 1940, with particular attention paid to the disjuncture between professional discourse and actual practices. Three main points are argued. First, early visiting teacher work drew from multiple sources, including social settlements, juvenile courts, private phi-lanthropies, and women’s clubs. The discussion of the origins of visiting teachers in multiple urban settings attested to the diversity of their work in communities and in schools. Second, most visiting teachers?work remained essentially unchanged, despite their later participation in child guidance clinics. Even though visiting teachers worked in conjunction with psychiatrists and psychologists, their practices still relied upon tra-ditional approaches used in the first part of the century. Third, the medical and psychi-atric discourses surrounding visiting teacher work in the 1920s and 1930s assumed a powerful life of its own. In a most curious manner, these languages formed a critique of teachers?social relations with students and of their classroom practices generally. Subse-quently, many teacher education programs initiated mental hygiene and psychology courses for their student teachers. The article concludes with lessons educators and pol-icy makers might take from the visiting teacher movement, especially those related to the current school-linked social services model.

This article traces the development of the visiting teacher movement, from 1906 to 1940, with particular attention paid to the disjuncture between professional discourse and actual practices. Three main points are argued. First, early visiting teacher work drew from multiple sources, including social settlements, juvenile courts, private philanthropies, and womens clubs. The discussion of the origins of visiting teachers in multiple urban settings attested to the diversity of their work in communities and in schools. Second, most visiting teachers work remained essentially unchanged, despite their later participation in child guidance clinics. Even though visiting teachers worked in conjunction with psychiatrists and psychologists, their practices still relied upon traditional approaches used in the first part of the century. Third, the medical and psychiatric discourses surrounding visiting teacher work in the 1920s and 1930s assumed a powerful life of its own. In a most curious manner, these languages formed a critique of teachers social relations with students and of their classroom practices generally. Subsequently, many teacher education programs initiated mental hygiene and psychology courses for their student teachers. The article concludes with lessons educators and policy makers might take from the visiting teacher movement, especially those related to the current school-linked social services model.

In 1905, public health nurse and resident of New York Citys Henry Street Settlement, Lillian Wald, expressed dissatisfaction with the public schools teaching methods. Arguing that school learning did not connect to most of the city childrens home conditions, she, along with several other settlement residents, initiated home-and-school visits, as well as created reading and study rooms for students to bridge their interests to school experiences. Through these activities, Wald conjoined two prevailing ideologies, those of maternalists and of progressive educators.1 One year later, the New York City Public Education Association assumed responsibility for this home-school liaison and hired its first visiting teacher. Little did Wald or the PEA realize at that time that the visiting teacher movement would help to lay some of the groundwork for child guidance clinics, for personality study in public schools, and for a teacher education reform movement that would include a mental hygiene component.

In tracing the development of the visiting teacher movement, I argue three main points. First, the impulses of early visiting teacher work drew from the institutional webbing of social settlements, welfare agencies, womens clubs, private philanthropies, and the juvenile court system. As such, visiting teachers employed traditional and maternalist practices similar to those of probation, truant, and police officers.2 Specifically, their most common forms of rehabilitation were visiting with the children, educating parents in child welfare, and coordinating social services.

Second, most visiting teachers practices remained essentially unchanged, despite their later involvement in child guidance clinic teams and further training in psychiatry, psychology, and mental hygiene. Here it is important to separate the espoused ideologies and rhetoric from the visiting teachers actual practices. Not unlike others in the helping fields, visiting teachers attempted to professionalize and standardize their work in their adoption of what Sol Cohen has referred to as the medicalization of education.3 Even though they worked with psychiatrists and psychologists in school clinics, visiting teachers persisted in their true-and-tried methods of visiting with the students, coordinating social services, and talking with parents.

Third, despite the lack of congruence between practice and rhetoric, I argue that the intensification of medical and psychiatric discourses assumed a powerful life of their own. The language of mental hygienists and psychiatrists, which bespoke the critical importance of personality, ushered in a critique of school teachers pedagogy and social relations with their students. In this sense, the mental hygiene movement enlarged its deployment not only to students and their parents but to teachers.4 In accordance, the Commonwealth Fund, which had largely subsidized visiting teachers and child guidance clinics in the schools, dismantled its program on delinquency prevention in the 1930s and shifted its focus to promote mental hygiene courses in teacher education curricula. In a most curious fashion, the progressive educators concepts of the whole child and the necessity of the teachers social point of view dovetailed with the mental hygienists concerns for teachers insight and ability to diagnose problem children in their classrooms. Even the image of schools as laboratories conflated to accommodate both the progressive educators and mental hygienists visions.

The school-linked social services, which educators and policy makers recommend today, are, to some degree, reminiscent of those performed by visiting teachers. Additionally, some of the challenges in implementing and delivering these services in the schools are similar to those faced by visiting teachers and school staff in the early part of the century. Despite the present emphasis on collaboration and collegiality among social agencies and schools, educators and policymakers need to think more carefully about differences in the professional training of staff members, among them social workers, teachers, psychologists, counselors, and principals. In order to develop a comprehensive system of social services, professionals must be able to comprehend, to some extent, one anothers discourses, conceptual approaches, and practices. This analysis of the history of the visiting teacher movement and its attendant teacher education reform offers caveats for school-linked services.


The visiting teacher movement occurred within the various contexts of increased immigration, compulsory schooling, and the extension of social and health services to schools and community agencies. Given diverse student populations, the functions of schools enlarged to accommodate the whole child, that is, various students physical, social, vocational, and academic needs. Open-air schools, vacation schools, shower facilities, school nurse services, penny lunch programs, and hygiene classes reflected the wider use of the school to improve student health.5 Not unlike other social service agencies, schools assumed more influence, and by some historians accounts, more control in what were traditionally considered family decisions.6 This community spirit of schools, be it forged through the use of schools as social centers or through direct services to neighborhoods and homes, was often sponsored through the maternalist clubs that also engaged in protective work through the juvenile courts, social service agencies, and neighborhood leagues.7

The education of the whole child also entailed increased differentiated instruction, rationalized through mental, intelligence, and vocational testing. In arguing for communityschool connections, as well as an emphasis on student interests, progressive educators espoused both individuated and social approaches to education. Although reformulated in terms of meritocracy and democracy, differentiated curricula sometimes reflected hereditarian and occasionally eugenic tenets at the extreme, especially in the correlation of delinquency, incorrigibility, and disabilities with subnormal intelligence and feeble-mindedness.8 The National Committee for Mental Hygiene, organized in 1909, expanded its focus of mental illness to include maladjusted, delinquent, and deviant children.9 This correspondence between mental hygiene and social adjustment would be embraced by the Commonwealth Funds Program for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency in the 1920s.

The expansion of school-community services also paralleled the development of institutions concerned with child and youth welfare, especially the juvenile courts, parental schools, and industrial and reformatory schools for dependent and delinquent children. Alongside these incipient bureaucracies were formal community agencies and facilities, usually under the umbrella of community chests, as well as a continuum of neighborhood organizations and ethnic clubs sponsored through the churches, social settlements, and neighborhood leagues. The nexus of female volunteer and professional positions within these various interstitial organizations was common, as a maternalist ideology and discourse wedded social and municipal reform to the gendered moral authority of women. As welfare state historians have noted, maternalism, in invoking the earlier language of the Republican motherhood, reinstated the significance of building a proper home life for children, especially for immigrant and poorer children.10 As Gwendolyn Mink has especially elaborated, these maternalist impulses reinforced gendered and classed prescriptions inscribed in the public school curricula, in community outreach programs, and in the helping professions of probation officers, social workers, and visiting teachers.11

Paradoxically, in depicting themselves as nurturing mothers, fledgling career women in the social-work fields often undermined their own professional status, unlike male psychiatrists, psychologists, and social work administrators who based their authority on specialized knowledge and expertise.12 To illustrate, the female qualities of sympathy and kindness were considered essential for probation work: The voice of pity and compassion must reach him in his home, and reach his parents also in his home.13 Continuing their traditional roles as moral guardians, female probation workers sought to develop a good personality and blameless character, but also knowledge, tact, judgment, memory, spirit of service, sympathetic temperament, faith in humanity, and above all, common sense.14 As family tutors, female probation officers wedded parents education to their childrens.15 Not unlike visiting teacher work, one chief probation officer described probation work in consonance with the schools, as probation officers communicated school functions to the parents and reinforced the teachers concern with school attendance, proper study habits, and completion of homework.16

Despite increased credentialing and standardization in their profession, probation workers continued to be imaged through maternal language. Although George Mangold had recommended that probation officers be knowledgeable in child psychology and child culture, he also emphasized that they be sympathetic and firm, as they consecrated themselves to this service. Towards this end, he advised hiring mothers and kindergarten teachers, as they had previous experience as moral physician[s].17 How close such relations actually were was questionable, as probation officers were sometimes prompted to ingratiate themselves with children.18 Policewomen, like probation officers, developed both maternal and professional attributes. In part, this arose out of the perceived differences between the duties of policewomen and men. Since policewomen were responsible for the moral protection of young women and girls, maternal qualities were thought to be not only fitting but necessary. As Hamilton noted: Just as a mother smoothes out the rough places, looks after the children and gives a timely word of warning, advice or encouragement, so the policewoman fulfills her duty.19 In order to assist in the prevention of female delinquency, probation experience, as well as a degree in nursing, social work, or teaching, was requisite. Proposed course work for policewomen at Northwestern University in 1915, not unlike that for visiting teachers, demonstrated a predilection toward a psychosocial model of delinquency, with classes in hygiene, anatomy, sociology, and psychology that included the topics of habit formation, social adjustment, and intelligence testing.20 Equipped with such knowledge, policewomen could then correctly diagnose young girls situations and, in some cases, assume the duties of visiting teachers in schools.

As with female police and probation work, the training of visiting teachers followed a similar path. As noted, the first home-school visitors in New York City were residents of the Henry Street Settlement. Shortly thereafter, two other settlements, the Hartley House and Greenwich House, joined forces in visiting families of children who were having difficulties in school. When New York Citys Public Education Association assumed financial responsibility for the first full-time visiting teacher one year later, its interest was mostly in curbing truancy, behavior problems, and academic failure. Not unlike the settlements, the PEA focused on two issues: the expansion of school services to the general public; and the broadening of the curriculum beyond the academic. By 1911, through the assistance of the Russell Sage Foundation and the New York Foundation, the New York City School Board hired seven visiting teachers; by 1913, they employed a total of ten visiting teachers. This philanthropic involvement foreshadowed the Commonwealth Funds sponsorship of visiting-teacher training and a mental-hygiene emphasis, especially as two visiting teachers were hired to work with mentally defective children.21

New York City was not alone in employing visiting teachers. In Boston as well, private agencies supported the first visiting teachers. Unlike New York City, however, the Boston school board did not continue the private associations sponsorship of visiting teachers.22 In Hartford, the first visiting teacher worked in a child guidance clinic, where she assisted the psychologist in collecting information on the childrens history and in treating their problems, as various as lack of school adjustment, physical problems, and antisocial behavior.23 Other cities soon organized visiting teacher programs, including Philadelphia (1909), Worcester (1910), Rochester (1913), Kansas City (1915), Minneapolis (1916), and Chicago (1919). By 1921, twenty-eight cities in fifteen states employed visiting teachers in their school systems, mostly at the junior high and high school levels. By 1923, nearly 140 visiting teachers worked in fifty cities and counties in twenty-six states.24

As with the other social service professions, visiting teachers sought to standardize and professionalize their work. The National Association of Visiting Teachers (later renamed the American Association of Visiting Teachers), founded in 1919, joined in the debate of how much social work and teacher training should be required. Chicago social worker Caroline Meis had recommended social agency work, in addition to a bachelors degree and three years of teaching experience.25 Prominent Chicago reformer and social work professor Edith Abbott, in underscoring the need for professionals such as visiting teachers in the public schools, argued that unless they were properly trained in social fieldwork, they were not only not expert but . . . positively dangerous.26 Referring to truancy as a social, not an educational problem, Abbott stressed that individual casework be bridged to a close understanding of community resources and agencies. Others, however, such as Miriam Van Waters, emphasized the study of mental hygiene, especially its relation to the study of personalities and problem childrens behavior.27 Indeed, by the 1920s, social and visiting teacher work shifted to a more psychoanalytical and medicalized model. Part of this change arose from Abraham Flexners criticism that social work was not a true profession but merely one which mediated other professions goals and methods.28 Embracing his criteria of a medical model, social workers donned the images of societys doctors and social engineers. As such, they employed what were considered the scientific methods of individual and psychiatric casework, interviews, diagnosis, and treatment.

Despite increased training, visiting teachers salaries were not comparable to those with similar training, much less to those with less training. Oppenheimers 1925 national survey of visiting teachers employment found that their salaries ranged from $1,200 to $3,000 annually, with the highest salaries at the junior high and high school levels. He estimated the median salary of thirty-five selected visiting teachers at $180 per month.29 By the 1930s, little would change. Meiss comparisons of 1934 salaries of Chicago probation officers and social workers affiliated with the juvenile court system indicated that their salaries of nearly $180 a month exceeded those of visiting teachers who were paid an average of $160 monthly. Chicago public school teachers salaries were even higher than social workers, with the median monthly salaries in 19321933 of $185 for elementary, $210 for junior high, and $262 for high school teachers.30 Clearly, the visiting teachers qualifications of teaching and social work degrees, plus social agency experience for visiting teachers, surpassed those of teachers and social workers, yet carried little financial remuneration. Excessive expectations for both the level of credentials and the amount of effort required to acquire them contributed to the eventual ebbing of the visiting teacher movement by the 1930s.

It was difficult to ascertain the ethnicity of most visiting teachers because the Commonwealth Fund and other sponsors did not record this information. However, if we look to other sister professions, it is clear that most probation officers, policewomen, and social workers were native-born white women. An examination of Chicago female employees affiliated with the juvenile court revealed that as of 1920 only five probation officers were African American; several Polish and German interpreters were also hired because of the large numbers of their youth brought before the court. The numbers for ethnic policewomen in Chicago were likewise small.31 That these numbers did not increase dramatically, at least for African American women, was demonstrated in a 1933 national survey that listed only 126 African American probation officers and twenty-three policewomen.32

What little information is available on African American visiting teachers is mostly anecdotal. Clearly, the number of African American visiting teachers did not represent the number of African American urban children classified as delinquent, dependent, or truant. In Philadelphia, for example, there was only one home-and-school visitor placed in Durham School, a predominantly African American school. Funded through the Armstrong Association, an interracial organization, Miss Richardson extended her work in 1912 to three other schools. In addition to supervising truant and behavior-problem children, she also formed a recreation center at Durham School, established a social club for mothers, and formed a Little Mothers League. These practices were consistent with other visiting teachers, especially the emphases on parental education and social clubs for children. In conjunction with the Chicago Urban League, Keith School hired a visiting teacher in 1929 to teach pregnant African American teenagers.33 In New York City, one African American visiting teacher was employed; in Brooklyn, the Urban League cooperated with the visiting teachers in the schools. Despite recommendations by African American sociologists E. Franklin Frazier and Charles Johnson for more African American visiting teachers, very few were trained or employed.34 By 1933, African American social work professor Forrester Washington tallied only seven African American visiting teachers nationwide. As another African American social work educator surmised, such small numbers resulted from the extensive training required, as well as discrimination and segregation in employment.35

Despite the ethnicity of visiting teachers, their early work had one essential aim: the adjustment of difficulties in childrens lives that affected their social and academic progress. According to Jane Culbert of New York Citys Public Education Association, this might entail interpreting to the school staff, primarily the teachers, the childrens out-of-school lives. Conversely, visiting teachers might need to explain to parents, especially immigrant parents, the expectations and activities of schools.36 Given the diversity of clients and their needs, visiting teachers relied upon no single method. For example, they worked with a number of persons: parents, students, administrators, ministers, nurses, social workers, and teachers. They not only acted, then, as liaisons between schools, families, and community agencies but cooperated with teachers and school staff. Lastly, many functioned in urban areas as truant officers, taking attendance and investigating chronic cases of nonattendance.37 In smaller cities where a juvenile court system was not well developed, visiting teachers work closely resembled that of truant and probation officers, although in larger cities the former were mostly employed by school boards and the latter by juvenile courts.38


The rapid growth in the number of visiting teachers was undoubtedly due to the Commonwealth Fund Program for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency in 1923. The program was congruent with the goals of the National Association of Visiting Teachers, whose president had recommended locating child guidance clinics in the schools. In essence, the Funds goals were twofold: to promote the psychiatric study and treatment of children with behavior problems; and to increase the numbers of visiting teachers in the schools. The Fund earmarked $300,000 annually for three-year demonstration sites in thirty communities for the establishment of child guidance clinics, replete with psychiatrists, psychologists, and a cadre of researchers and visiting teachers. From these monies the Fund provided two-thirds of the visiting teachers salaries, with the remaining one-third shared by local sources, usually school boards.39

The Fund envisioned four components to the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency Program. First, the New York School of Social Work established a Bureau of Childrens Guidance, which sponsored a demonstration psychiatric clinic in New York City, to work closely with five of the citys public schools. Not only did the clinic diagnose and treat problem children and, in some cases, their parents, but it acted as a training site for visiting teachers. Additionally, fifteen annual scholarships enabled visiting teachers or social workers to train to become psychiatric social workers. The Fund also created special fellowships for visiting teachers to enroll in six-week summer sessions, with course offerings in psychiatry, psychology, and mental hygiene. Secondly, a traveling psychiatric clinic service provided services to various cities. Third, visiting teachers were placed in thirty communities for a three-year period, from 1921 to 1927. Lastly, an evaluation team, comprised of a social worker, educator, and psychiatrist, created standardized record forms and data sheets to fully evaluate the effectiveness of visiting teachers and guidance clinics work with children.40 Although the Fund emphasized the child guidance clinics study and treatment of difficult and predelinquent children, it also hoped to extend and disseminate the clinics knowledge. The proliferation of clinics from 1919 to 1932 reflected these ambitious plans of the Fund. Although there were only seven child guidance clinics in schools in 1919, by 1932 there were 232, with twenty-seven full-time clinics in major urban areas.41

The location of clinics in schools served at least six logistical purposes. First, because schools housed the students academic, attendance and health records, clinical staff and visiting teachers could avail themselves of this vital information, especially when writing case histories. Second, most visiting teachers were employed by school boards and thus they provided an entry into the schools. Third, school-based clinics pointed to the public schools commitment to further extend their services to students, parents, and family members. Indeed, the school was often depicted as the greatest social agency. Reflecting this image, Edith Abbott reaffirmed: The public school in the great American city of today touches every social problemthe non-supporting father, the tubercular mother, the degraded home, and all the harassing difficulties that poverty and degradation bring into unfortunate homes.42 Others, such as Dr. Wallace, assumed a more medical perspective in conjoining mental hygiene to progressive education. Instrumental in setting up clinics for the Commonwealth Fund in Massachusetts, he forewarned: Until the school is also used as a laboratory for studying the children and meeting the special needs of children, the community education sphere is one-half in eclipse, and out of the darkened hemisphere will emerge the mental and nervous disorders of the future.43

Dr. Wallaces remarks were not isolated. Rather, they pointed to the fourth advantage of in-school clinics: they served as central sites with large student populations, ready-made for the observation and study of individual children. As the Commonwealth Funds director enumerated: The public school coming into close contact with the lives of over twenty million young boys, girls, and adolescentsisor should beour greatest social welfare agency.44 Despite the salience of this idea, in actuality students spent more time out of school. Howard Nudd calculated that children were in school only 12 percent of the time; translated differently, out of eight years of schooling, they actually spent only one year in school. Despite the short amount of time spent in schools, one study of visiting teachers reported that most childrens misbehavior occurred there (86 percent), as opposed to in their neighborhoods (10 percent) or homes (4 percent).45 These percentages may have indicated the extent to which students resisted the social and academic expectations of schools; or they may have supported progressive educators arguments that the curricula did not connect to students out-of-school lives. Regardless, such percentages must be suspect, given the fact that most visiting teachers were staffed in schools and would, therefore, observe more misconduct there.

The fifth advantage in locating clinics in schools was that progressive educators and mental hygienists could more successfully launch their attacks on traditional curriculum and pedagogy there. For mental hygienists, the social adjustment and individuated instruction of special-needs childrenbe they mentally subnormal, gifted, truant or predelinquentcomplemented the progressive educators rallying cry for the whole child. As such, both groups united in their concerns. Both sides, for example, argued that progressive education had a more positive influence on students emotional adjustment, especially because it built from student interests and knowledge, drew from unit experiences and lifelike activities, and intrinsically motivated the students. Progressive educators and mental hygienists further argued that modifying the traditional organization of schools, particularly its narrow focus on academics and grades, would improve students mental health.46 These responses countered the prevailing criticism of progressive schools latitude, refuted even by Dewey, who claimed that students in progressive schools had no more behavior problems than those in traditional schools.47

Finally, clinics in schools created further opportunity for the observation and training of teachers, particularly in the area of mental hygiene. One proponent argued that when students were failing, school clinics could provide information to teachers about students vocational aptitudes or family backgrounds. The Commonwealth Fund likewise hoped that the presence of clinics in the schools would elicit greater teacher interest in vocational guidance, especially as students neared graduation.48 If teachers were reluctant to employ the clinics services, it was surmised that student teachers could be persuaded to do so, as well as to implement methods used by visiting teachers in the classroom. As will be discussed later, student teachers coursework in mental hygiene and casework, coupled with community field experiences, reflected a shift in the Commonwealths Funds goals from sponsoring visiting teachers to the reformulation of teacher education curricula. Given the financial difficulties of school boards assuming the costs of visiting teacher salaries and clinics in the 1930s, as well as concerns expressed by progressive educators and mental hygienists, the solution of teacher education reform made sense, except to teachers.

Before discussing the Commonwealth Funds shift in goals, it is necessary to examine the impact of mental hygiene and school clinics, especially as they influenced visiting teacher work. Again, the various strands of discoursesof mental hygienists, progressive educators, and philanthropiesshould be distinguished from the actual activities of visiting teachers in the schools. Although visiting teachers became more involved in vocational guidance and child guidance clinics, they still spent most of their time adjusting home and family conditions, encouraging parental cooperation, and coordinating social services for the students or their families. To illustrate, at Montefiore School in Chicago, a special unit for maladjusted immigrant and African American boys with low IQs, six visiting teachers conducted home visits, as well as functioned much like earlier charity workers by providing clothing, Christmas gifts, and food to the families. To curb truancy and juvenile court referrals, the visiting teachers also organized a school assembly and other school programs.49 Lastly, the boys were given a careful, sympathetic study of their abilities and interests to more closely match them to vocational and industrial curricula. In the latter activity, the visiting teachers treatment focused less on mental hygiene concepts and more on what one social work educator referred to as commonsense concepts.50

Nonetheless, visiting teachers were conceptualized as engaged in mental hygiene work. The mental hygiene movement purported to study, in a scientific manner, conditions that deviated from wholesome living. Of special concern to mental hygienists and psychiatrists was the development of what was considered optimal mental health or personality development. Coordinating with the Commonwealth Funds preventive strategies for delinquency, school clinics favored early detection and intervention, so that small behavioral problems did not lead to profound character distortions that could permanently mar and disfigure the personality.51 Dr. William Healys studies of dependent and delinquent children detained through Chicagos juvenile court were especially influential in attributing maladjustment and delinquency to early childhood. Through his correlations of medical, psychological and intelligence test results, he theorized that delinquency resulted not from the external conditions of poverty, crowded tenements, or underemployment, but from the internal ones of buried emotions, early childhood traumas, and unconscious memories.52 As such, habit formation, especially prevalent in younger childrens thumb-sucking or bed-wetting behavior, indicated psychological maladjustment. Accordingly, a professional corps of child professionals stood ready to diagnose, test, and rehabilitate. As one child guidance expert proclaimed, Old functions of child welfare and training have passed over into the hands of sociologists, psychiatrists, physicians, home economists and other scientists dealing with problems of human welfare.53

What followed from the mental hygiene movement were multiple categories of childhood problems and their appropriate diagnoses and treatments. Acting-out behavior, such as stubbornness, fighting, and truancy, was distinguished from acting-in behavior, which included shyness, silence, or daydreaming. For adolescents, the most common maladjustments were extreme shyness, over sensitivity, lack of confidence, self-consciousness, and feelings of inferiority. These concerns often related to the regulation of their sexual behavior, be it flirting, petting, sex delinquencies, homosexual crushes, or masturbation.54 Whatever the difficulty, the staff of child guidance clinicsideally comprised of a psychiatrist, psychologist, physician, and psychiatric social worker or visiting teacherwould intervene. Initially, the visiting teacher or social worker conducted an intake of the students history, consisting of interviews, observations of the child, and gathering school, attendance, and health records. If there was no psychologist on staff, the visiting teacher or social worker either referred the child to a psychologist or administered, herself, a battery of vocational, intelligence, achievement, personality, and social attitudes tests. She then presented the case history to the staff. It was, however, the psychiatrist who ultimately diagnosed and recommended treatment. As Margo Horn has astutely noted, the child guidance clinics were primarily shaped not by visiting teachers but by psychiatrists.55 As such, the visiting teacher movement assumed gendered hierarchies, as female visiting teachers worked not alongside but under male medical professionals.

Although the psychiatrists treated the more serious cases, visiting teachers assisted with those less difficult. By and large, the most common forms of treatment for most children were general medical treatment, adaptations of their school schedule or placement, special educational services, vocational counseling, and coordinating social activities and services with child welfare agencies. In some health-related cases, the treatment might be as simple as advising parents to change the childs diet or sleep habits. Although visiting teachers could not ultimately transform the childs physical environment, they might adapt it by organizing recreational activities or encouraging new pastimes. School performance problems might necessitate changes in plans of study, grade placement, or teachers.56

Although most school clinics and their staff reported high success rates with the students adjustment, their treatments merit closer attention. For example, one study examined 591 children who were referred and treated at the Bureau of Childrens Guidance in New York City from 1922 to 1927. Referred by their respective schools, most children were American-born adolescents who lived in economically marginal households. Of those not native-born white, most were Russian, Italian, and Irish; 6.5 percent of the cases were African Americans. The difficulties of most of these children, in their order of frequency, were disorderly conduct in school, lying, and disobedience. The successful treatments, calculated to be 75 percent of all cases, did not result from psychoanalysis or psychotherapy. Rather, participation in summer camps and recreational activities, referrals to social agencies, and attitude changes of the children or their parents constituted the most common forms of treatment.57 Such practices support Cohens contention that despite the rhetoric of mental hygiene, most of the treatment generally focused on home or community adjustment.58

Thus, although visiting teachers increasingly enrolled in psychiatric casework and mental hygiene courses, there was little evidence that they actually engaged in casework or the study of personalities. Instead, I argue that there was a shift in the language, echoing that of mental hygienists and progressive educators. For example, a students personality could be developed through the project-problem method. In another suggestion, the visiting teacher might change a students behavior through habit formation, which entailed linking previous experience to new experiences, which resulted in a new moving equilibrium of social forces from which the stimulus or inhibition of the adjusting agent can itself be safely withdrawn.59 Even in rural areas, visiting teachers noted the students personality traits, carefully observing their behavior for incipient problems or maladjustment, especially defiance and aggressiveness.60 Additionally, visiting teachers personality studies could assist teachers in individualizing their pedagogical approaches to children with different abilities, interests, and skills. As the National Committee on Visiting Teachers reformulated the visiting teachers role: Visiting teacher work is an attempt at preventive and constructive work with school children, in and through the schools, by adding to the school staff a member who is equipped in mental hygiene and social case work.61

Students presented to school clinics and their corresponding visiting teachers with a variety of problems, as indicated by the various case studies reported in the Commonwealth Funds publications. Sayles investigation revealed multiple categories of behavior problems, ranging from parental attitudes and the students feelings of inferiority, to students dishonesty and sex problems of girls.62 It was not coincidental that most girls who were considered sex delinquents were retarded in their grade level and thus more sexually mature than their peers. Case studies of visiting teachers in New York City reported a number of delinquent girl cases, such as one described in the chapter Far Gone:

She seemed to know every young man in town, and was very frivolous and flapperish in her manner with them, standing on street corners by the half hour with one, letting herself be picked up for an auto ride with another, appearing at soda fountains and movies with a third, in rapid succession and with the most casual manner.63

In this case, the visiting teacher befriended her cousin, who worked in the drug store, considered a popular . . . rendezvous for hosts of young people. Although the teacher soon became a confidante to the delinquent girl, the girl nonetheless became pregnant, contracted syphilis, and delivered a stillborn infant.64 In another chapter, Rumor and Reputation, a young girl named Helen provided her own script, which included a whiskey bottle, a roadside inn supper, and cigarettes. In another case and corresponding chapter, Gladys met with strong disapproval from her teacher as she rolled her midday blouse sleeves up above her elbows. According to the teacher, Gladys wayward impulses were more than average strength. In both cases, the visiting teacher defused the situation, the former through frank discussions with the girl, her mother, and school staff; the latter through directing the girls energy into productive channels and discussing the case with the teacher who had repressed her [own] natural impulses.65

These examples corroborated Oppenheimers analysis of 300 visiting teacher case reports, as well as selected interviews with visiting teachers. Although he enumerated thirty-two basic duties, at least half involved assisting families with referrals to social service agencies, and one-fourth included working directly with the parents.66 Cases descriptions of a typical day for a visiting teacher reflected the very same types of activities. For example, visiting teachers in her study frequently educated parents and teachers, repeated home visits, attended conferences, and completed childrens histories and records.67 In rural settings, visiting teacher work was even more extensive because of the few social agencies and clinics available in such areas. Functioning as something of a Robinson Crusoe, the visiting teacher assisted through individuated curriculum building, creating a nature club, or setting up an exchange of products of children from one rural school to another. In rural schools where special services were lacking, she advocated for special classes, school equipment, library books, and recreational equipment. She also organized recreational activities, such as Boy Scout troops, church youth societies, and a new school orchestra. Most treatment involving individual children corrected physical defects, such as poor vision or hearing, not mental or social ones.68

In Alabama, African American visiting teachers accomplished similar duties. According to Boatwright, visiting teachers spent at least half of their time visiting homes. Much of their work focused on talking to students, helping parents get involved with local PTAs, and working cooperatively with regular teachers. The remainder of their work included social service agency referrals, working with school personnel, and conferencing with principals and teachers on problems of delinquency and truancy. The accomplishments these visiting teachers most listed were more regular school attendance, an increase in adult literacy, and greater teacher efficien[cy] in the classroom. Despite these efforts, because there were only two African American visiting teachers for fifty schools, with a combined student population of over 12,000, it was doubtful whether their work was as effective as hoped.69

Boatwright had argued that African American visiting teachers were best suited for work in their own communities, given their knowledge of community mores, as well as the racism expressed by white social workers and visiting teachers. Indeed, her belief was well-founded. Some visiting teachers, not unlike earlier settlement workers and reformers, persisted in their ethnocentric biases of children and their families. Some, for example, proffered the nuclear family model, expressing dismay over lodgers or extended family members who often resided with immigrant or African American families. Or they disapproved of home conditions that they thought reflected family disorganization and individual maladjustment, such as overcrowded apartments, late hours for children, lack of discipline, unwholesome recreation, and even the stimulation of tea and coffee drinking.70 The National Committee of Visiting Teachers enumerated the following home conditions as particularly undesirable: overindulgence or strictness, lack of cooperation with the schools, little opportunity for play or recreation, poor study or sleep habits, improper diet, immoral home conditions, poverty, and maladjustment, especially of foreign-born parents. To assist parents in reaching the high ideals of family life, several researchers estimated that at least half of the visiting teachers time was spent educating parents.71

Although social workers and visiting teachers bolstered their professions through family intervention and individual casework, some historians have viewed these practices as forms of surveillance and intrusion, as well as the displacement of parental duties. Christopher Lasch, for one, has criticized the invasion of family life through parent education, social casework, and intensive counseling sessions.72 However, as professionals in the 1920s interpreted the situation, family life was in a state of crisis. Many specialists thought that parents, particularly mothers, were responsible for their childrens personality and behavioral problems. But, more likely than not, parents were probably confused by the proliferation of scientific advice, which was often contradictory. For example, childrens social adjustment was often measured by the degree to which they confided in their mothers and showed physical affection. Yet mothers were blamed for prolonging their adolescents dependency, rather than encouraging their psychological weaning. The reformulations of social relations in families, evident in the literature on companionate marriages, democratic families, and the various adolescent crises, must have been especially confusing for immigrant parents.73


Although public schools portrayed themselves in community and familial images, teachers often thought differently. Many felt overburdened by such expectations, countering that the shift of responsibility from home to school was too taxing. Although principals often criticized teachers for not taking the time to visit their students homes or for living in the suburbs rather than the city neighborhoods where they taught, they also acknowledged that teachers were beset with overcrowded classrooms and a lack of resourceful training for handling social problems.74 Ironically, despite the schools bolstered images of wholesome recreation and community involvement, because of overcrowded schools many children could only attend half of the day. Some educators surmised that such schedules led to delinquency, as students had a great amount of free time at their disposal.75

Rather than indicting structural inequalities or the bureaucratic character of schools, teachers, then, often bore the brunt of criticism. Despite recommendations of smaller class sizes and reduced teaching loads, the prevailing thought was that teachers should cultivate a greater social consciousness, mainly through course work in social work and psychology. Toward this end, the visiting teachers of Allentown, Pennsylvania, created a new course for teachers, Sociology of Human Behavior.76 However, as the need for social work usually exceeded the duties and expectations of teachers, visiting teachers roles became critical, particularly as student-teacher mediators. More precisely, several studies by visiting teachers revealed that teacher-student relations were often strained, especially with children the teachers perceived as difficult. Smiths study, culled from reports of visiting teachers, pointed to visiting teachers overwhelming observations that teachers more often than not mishandled situations involving these children. To illustrate, teachers often showed dislike or antagonism towards them, rather than giving them constructive treatment or attention. Based upon 300 interviews with difficult children, Smith reported that the majority expressed feelings of inadequacy due to teachers (67 percent), as well as to school work (69 percent).77

To remedy this situation, social workers and visiting teachers argued that teachers should develop more of a social point of view. This entailed becoming knowledgeable about certain groups, that is, those who are unfavorably distinguished in the community by the neighborhood in which they live, by the occupational group to which their parents belong, by race, by mentality, or by any other attribute.78 Because teachers resided in communities other than where they taught, their relations with students were described as half-seen and half-understood.79 This was especially true for students of other races and ethnicities:

Difficulty in imagining that ability could be associated with a family of a different race with standards of physical living very unlike and inferior to her own is sometimes thought to be a factor in a teachers negative attitude toward a childs potentialities.80

A list of measures associated with the teachers lack of understanding of students indicated the following unsuccessful strategies: premature decisions about a child, for example, a child was thought to be slow or dull; not considering health or medical problems; discouraging a child; emphasizing failure not success; humiliating a child; comparing a child to other siblings; and treating the use of cosmetics as a sin,81 rather than as a minor infraction. However, just as administrators and visiting teachers thought teachers the source of the problem, teachers thought most students problems originated in their homes. Most teachers, however, were not enthusiastic about visiting their students homes, even though administrators usually required them to visit at least once or twice a year. Because their visits were described as negative by the parents, visiting teachers suggested that teachers be more knowledgeable and positive about the children, that they utilize interviewing techniques and the case study approach, and that they work with various community agency staff.82 In essence, these were the very strategies that had been utilized by the visiting teachers themselves.

Visiting teachers and mental hygienists voiced two distinct but interconnected criticisms about teachers: that many teachers personalities were maladjusted; and that their behavior was often detrimental to their students. As William H. Burnham contended: A healthy school atmosphere can only be created by teachers who are themselves mentally healthy and who have an abiding interest in children and a real respect for the personality of each child.83 A plethora of studies confirmed the delicate mental health of female teachers and the need for adjusted teachers. One study, which examined the emotional climate of schools through 1,000 childrens social and academic adjustment, concluded that the effects of teachers mental health was direct and real to their students.84 Other smaller-scale studies corroborated these findings. Pecks study in the 1930s noted that many teachers suffered from nervous disorders, especially psychoneuroses; another 1930s study expressed alarm that only 10 percent of teacher-training universities and colleges that were members of the American Association of Teachers Colleges required any statement as to the mental status of teacher education applicants from their respective high schools.85 One researcher, noting that many psychiatric patients were female teachers, surmised: Many neurotically inclined women, forced to earn a living, are attracted to teaching, often because teaching offers the line of least resistance and sometimes because it appears to provide a degree of refuge from more competitive types of work.86

Other studies pointed to the intensification of teacher work, which resulted in fatigue and emotional problems. Nonetheless, researchers seemed less interested in teachers mental health than the effect of their personalities upon students. For example, teachers were often accused of being too pedagogical or achievement-oriented; they were blamed for harping about student failure and mocking underachievers publicly. Quizzes, examinations, and grades were thought to be the teachers ammunition for claiming authority in the classroom. Some studies even cited examples of prominent businessmen who still carried the emotional scars of childhood from their teachers punitive behaviors.87 The formula for the mentally healthy and happy teacher was juxtaposed with these negative images. Mentally sound teachers were not only devoted to teaching; their teaching gave unity and zest to their lives. As such, their interests were not narrow, like their pedagogies, but broad and varied. They were not self-obsessed but sympathetic, an attribute consciously used in social work to denote the contemporary and scientific practices of insight and transference. Lastly, mentally healthy teachers were objective, that is, emotionally mature, able to build confidence in others, and possessing an orderly association of ideas.88

How exactly did a teacher vivify these characteristics? In some cases, her strategies were minimal, ranging from a bright and sunny classroom filled with books and objects that caught the childrens attention, to her colorful attire and playful gestures. These very strategies had, in fact, been used by the earlier visiting teachers in Philadelphia.89 Of utmost importance, however, was the teachers understanding of the child through sympathy and a social point of view. That is, the teacher should not judge the students behavior; rather, she should explore and understand it. Students should feel comfortable, then, in confiding in their teachers, who would be sympathetic to their social conditions.90 As one educator conjectured: Some of the more obvious concomitants of poverty can be relieved by an intelligent and sympathetic teacher.91 Although this educator did not elaborate on how this would be accomplished, a focus on the students personality seemed to be critical. As one mental hygienist succinctly stated: The teacher must change her emphasis from the thing taught to the person taught.92

The transition to mental hygiene and visiting teacher practices for the teachers became a logical solution. What better ways could teachers learn about their students than to engage in casework, interviewing, and observations? Like their predecessors, the visiting teachers, teachers were encouraged to become familiar with social casework methods, including interviewing students and parents, observing their students in out-of-school settings, correlating the results of various standardized tests, and compiling daily schedules of their students lives. Although there were various types of interviewsthe friendly, diagnostic, and guidancethe teachers most important goals were to establish rapport and to better understand their students.93 Additionally, in learning how to interview through conversations, teachers would gain the parents cooperation. In arguing that the classroom was the optimal setting for gathering information on children, mental hygienists also hoped to accomplish two ends: to accumulate information for their children studies; and to change teachers pedagogies and behaviors in order to more fully assist in their students social and academic adjustments.

To properly carry out these new responsibilities, teacher education was revised. Since the early 1920s, the White-Williams Foundation in Philadelphia had expressed a keen interest in teacher preparation, especially regarding mental hygiene. Under the directorship of Anna Pratt, the foundation in 1920 sponsored a mental hygiene course for teachers through the Pennsylvania School of Social Work.94 This, however, was not an isolated effort. In 1923, in an attempt to improve the quality of visiting teacher and teacher preparation, the foundation surveyed over 170 colleges and universities about courses offered for visiting teachers in social casework, as well as courses to help teachers understand their students social backgrounds. The results were surprising to the foundation, which discovered that not one college or university offered a class in social case work for visiting teachers. Universities in twenty-six states did, however, offer courses in sociology, psychology, and history to improve teachers understanding of their pupils.95

To remedy this paucity of firsthand experiences, the foundation provided scholarships, funded through the Commonwealth Fund, at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University for fieldwork courses for teachers. The foundation likewise recommended community agency work for effective visiting teacher work, as well as classes in psychology, psychiatry, child study, vocational guidance, foreign language instruction, social work training, industrial conditions, and racial characteristics.96 Additionally, in 1925 the Philadelphia Normal School, in conjunction with the foundation, offered a sequence of classes to help teachers better understand maladjusted children. Divided into three terms, the coursework included the study of childrens social backgrounds and child welfare, which culminated in field-based community experiences. Not unlike the first visiting teachers in New York City, student interns worked at settlements as club leaders, story hour readers, recreation supervisors, and volunteer teachers. Through these activities, and discussions with interpreters and caseworkers, they learned about the childrens immigrant neighborhoods.97 Such activities were reminiscent of the early visiting teachers school-community activities. Eventually a fifth course was added to provide firsthand observation and study of problem children at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic. Again, a field component encouraged students to visit with staff and family, as well as visit the students homes, neighborhoods, and social agencies. At the Summer Institute at the Pennsylvania School of Social Work and Health Work, teachers convened to discuss case materials from their own classes. In an effort to further understand their difficult students, they read case studies from The Problem Child in School, published by the Commonwealth Fund.98

These initiatives for better teacher preparation, especially through the study of mental hygiene and personality, as well as firsthand experiences with children and families, were part of a wholesale effort to reform teacher education programs. Many colleges implemented the recommendations. Teachers College of Columbia University was one of the first to add mental hygiene materials to their education courses through the Department of Psychiatric Education. There, the recommended topics included the study of history of the mental hygiene movement, the significance of heredity and environment, psychoanalytic and case study methods, early recognition of mental disorders, adjustment of the superior child, disciplinary problems, and emotional factors in adjustment.99 The New York School of Social Work also added a mental hygiene component that included psychopathology, clinical psychiatry, and mental hygiene and personality problems of childhood. School problems studied in the psychiatric seminar followed a mental hygienist focus: authoritative teachers, the normal childs retardation in school, and emotional problems of immigrants and their children.100 Within one decade, from 1929 to 1939, the number of mental hygiene courses at 178 colleges increased by nearly 300 percent.101 A plethora of college textbooks on mental hygiene, family sociology, and psychology, many published by the Commonwealth Fund, accompanied the new curricula.102

Despite revised teacher education curricula in mental hygiene, I found no direct evidence that teachers actually engaged in associated practices, such as casework or assisting students in habit formation. Given the lean Depression years, teachers more than likely assumed some of the social welfare functions of the visiting teachers, who assisted students and their families with hot lunches, clothing handouts, and other donations.103 By 1932, the Commonwealth Fund had ended its Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Program; likewise, the Progressive Education Association no longer supported visiting teachers. Most school boards were reluctant to assume the costs of visiting teachers, although a few did so willingly. In 1929, nearly 250 visiting teachers worked in mostly urban areas in thirty-five states. By 1935, the number of visiting teachers had declined to 175 in twenty-two states. This was far below the number of visiting teachers recommended by the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection.104

But there were other factors that contributed to the decline of the visiting teacher movement and attendant teacher education reform. Some visiting teachers claimed that individual casework with students was ineffective, especially when the problems were ones associated with the schools, be it their ineffective curricula or strict enforcement of school regulations. However, another visiting teacher, Edith Everette, argued that school limitations provided parameters for their work. In her estimation, these parameters validated the extent and direction of visiting teacher work, which should be confined to schools and not include communities. The latter perspective coincided with the noticeable shift of visiting teacher work in the 1930s from delinquency, considered more rampant among working-class and immigrant children, to the adjustment of middle-class childrens personalities. This narrowed focus was perhaps inevitable, as only wealthier school districts could afford to hire and keep visiting teachers.105 The exclusion of a community component in these schools was probably not considered contradictory by school staff, as most sociological studies typically classified wealthier communities and families as organized and stable.106

Additionally, certain trends in progressive education may have affected and even supplanted visiting teachers work. During the late 1920s and the 1930s, curriculum commissions and committees wrestled with the extent to which high school courses should be differentiated. An increase in high school enrollment, particularly during the Depression, undoubtedly sharpened this concern. Some social studies programs promoted progressive education strategies that accommodated students varying capacities as well as attended to their social adjustment. For example, progressive social studies teachers focused on the major functions of social life by integrating the curriculum with discussions of real life problems. This was in accordance with recommendations by Teachers College Professor Thomas Briggs, chair of the Secondary Principals Committee, who thought that students should explore their aptitudes and interests together, while also adjusting to one another. William Bagley and other essentialist education professors considered this approach soft and neglectful of a strong core curriculum.107 What is missing from arguments on both sides is consideration of the role of social service personnel in the schools, including visiting teachers, and how they might affect students school performance. Indeed, the goals of the above social studies teachers and visiting teachers were strikingly similar, although the former worked with the classroom group and the latter individual students.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to conclude how far-reaching these progressive pedagogies were or their effect upon visiting teacher work. While some historians have heralded the Depression years as the pinnacle of progressive education, many have instead argued that teacher-centered and textbook-driven approaches prevailed, especially in high schools. Even Thomas Briggs study of exemplary high school teachers in the New York City metropolitan area must have been dismaying to him, as it revealed that most teachers relied upon recitation and traditional textbooks.108 These studies indicate that many teachers did not employ progressive pedagogies; further, they show that most teachers did not embrace the mental hygiene and visiting teacher components associated with the teacher education reform of the 1930s. These moments of intended reformsespecially the disjuncture of rhetoric and actual practicesare particularly instructive for educators today who propose a return to social services in the schools.


The goals of the school-linked services model recommended by educators is strikingly reminiscent of those of visiting teachers. Specifically, the model seeks to attend to the whole child through the integration of health and social services within school settings. Visiting teachers, in conjoining maternalist and progressive educators ideologies, likewise expressed concerns about the whole child, which included aspects of his or her school, family, and community life, as well as social and physical well-being. Similar to the earlier movement, school-linked services will entail a great degree of cooperation and collaboration among school staff and social service personnel, as well as the housing of services within schools.109 However, as the visiting teacher experiences inform us, collaboration is often difficult to promote, especially in school settings. One reason is that underlying suppositions are not critically addressed and so questions remain unanswered. For example, given the diversity of professional training, discourses, and practices among school, health, and social services personnel, how will mutual understandings and goals be fostered? Clearly, disciplinary differences in terminology, theories, and conceptual frameworks present challenges for all involved professionals, although these challenges need not be insurmountable. A second question is whether the model of collaboration among professionals will be egalitarian or hierarchical. Here, the example of the visiting teacher is particularly instructive. As a member of a child guidance or mental hygiene team, she often assumed a subordinate position to the psychiatrist and psychologist. Conversely, when working with classroom teachers, she was not always perceived as a colleague but a critic. And third, how will school-linked services be financed? External support, when curtailed, often leads to the demise of reform, as was the case with the Commonwealth Fund and the visiting- and affiliate-teacher education programs.

Some educators and policy makers have expressed concern about these very issues. Those addressing the funding of school-linked services are to be especially commended for their hard-nosed acknowledgment of barriers.110 But it is not entirely clear what role teachers are to play in this reform, although the intended classroom outcomes bear a remarkable resemblance to those of their visiting teacher counterparts in the 1920s and 1930s. That is, once teachers receive information from social service and health personnel about their students, they will then adjust their classroom management and pedagogical approaches. Certainly, these are important considerations for teachers and I am not diminishing this potentially valuable input. But what information do the teachers, in turn, provide to affiliate professionals, especially their untapped firsthand knowledge of students and of pedagogy? If collaboration and collegiality are not extended to teachers, their professionalism is undermined. And so is the likelihood of sustained reform.

Lastly, little has been said about how teacher education programs will instruct future teachers in the delivery of school-linked services. Here, the historical lesson bears great importance, as it requires us to reflect on who initiates teacher education reform and for what purposes. Again, it is critical to examine the differences in professional training, discourses, and practices, rather than rhetorically subsuming differences under the rhetoric of collaboration. Will related teacher education courses be taught by interdisciplinary teams or in separate strands? Will students be placed in various communities and social service agencies for field experiences, similar to the teachers in the 1930s? Who will supervise these experiences? Lastly, how will this reform affect the professional status of teachers? Unless teachers have a voice about their roles in school-linked services, as well as the reforms articulation in teacher education programs, the reform may become, in Seymour Sarasons words, a predictable failure.111

I do not raise these questions to diminish the importance of this model. Indeed, school-linked services hold great promise, just as the visiting teacher movement did. Rather, we need to reconsider historical antecedents in our formulation and implementation of any contemporary reform. This includes the discourses of professionalism and the rhetoric of reform. If school-linked services are to be successful, then the arms that extend into students lives should be many, including those of their teachers.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 100 Number 3, 1999, p. 627-655
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10325, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 5:43:50 AM

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About the Author
  • Anne Meis Knupfer
    Purdue University
    E-mail Author
    Anne Meis Knupfer is assistant professor in Educational Studies at Purdue University. She is author of Toward a Tendered Humanity and A Nobler Womanhood: African American Women’s Clubs in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago (New York University Press, 1996) and is currently completing a book on delinquent girls in early twentieth-century Chicago.
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