The Public Interest

Women Versus Women’s Reform

Peter Skerry

Summer 1979

SHIELA ROTHMAN’S Womans Proper Place is a study of the changing policies-private and public-toward women in America over the past hundred years. Her particular interest i_ in the efforts of women reformers who have taken up the task of speaking on behalf of all women. Dr. Rothman begins with a somewhat skeptical look at the philanthropic activities of genteel women during the decades following the Civil War to uphold the ideal of “virtuous womanhood” they felt to be threatened. The work of these “Protestant nuns,” as Rothman calls them, ranged from temperance and suffrage reform, to friendly visiting in the homes of the poor, to the establishment of YWCAs to protect the virtue of unmarried working girls newly arrived in the cities. Dr. Rothman then goes on to examine the activities of Progressives, who argued for governmental action to protect women in the home and in the factory. These chapters serve as a prelude to a lengthy discussion of today’s womens movement, its reform proposals, and its future. Not quite history and not quite policy analysis, this intriguing work is dearly the product of much diligent research and offers some gems of historical scholarship that illuminate current controversies over policies toward women. 

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