Why Girls Go Wrong, September 1907


Why Girls Go Wrong

By Jane Addams, of Hull-House, Chicago

In Which Miss Addams Presents "The Only Path that is Open to Us in America"

To one who has lived for years in a crowded city quarter where men, women and children constantly jostle each other and press upon every inch of space in shop, tenement and street, nothing is more impressive than the strength, the continuity, the varied and powerful manifestations of family affection. It goes without saying that every tenement house contains women who for years spend their hurried days in preparing food and clothing and pass their sleepless nights in tending and nursing their exigent children, with never one thought for their own comfort or pleasure or development save as these may be connected with the future of their families. We all know as a matter of course that every shop is crowded with workingmen who year after year spend all of their wages upon the nurture and education of their children, reserving for themselves but the shabbiest clothing and a crowded place at the family table.

"Bad weather for you to be out in," you remark on a February evening, as you meet rheumatic Mr. S. hobbling home through the freezing sleet without an overcoat. "Yes, it is bad," he assents; "but I've walked to work all this last year. We've sent the oldest boy back to High School, you know," and he moves on with no thought that he is doing other than fulfilling the ordinary lot of the ordinary man.

These are the familiar and the constant manifestations of family affection which are so intimate a part of life that we scarcely observe them.


In addition to these we find peculiar manifestations of family devotion exemplifying that touching affection which rises to unusual sacrifice because it is close to pity and feebleness. "My cousin and his family had to go back to Italy. He got to Ellis Island with his wife and five children, but they wouldn't let in the feeble-minded boy so of course they all went back with him. My cousin was fearful disappointed."

Or, "These are the five children of my brother. He and his wife, my father and mother, were all done for in the bad time at Kisheneff. It's up to me all right to take care of the kids, and I'd no more go back on them than I would on my own." Or, again: "Yes, I have seven children of my own. My husband died when Tim was born. The other three children belong to my sister, who died the year after my husband did. I get on pretty well. I scrub in a factory every night from six to twelve, and I go out washing four days a week. So far the children have all gone through the eighth grade before they quit school," she concludes, beaming with pride and joy.


Then there are the august manifestations of that affection which outlives abuse, neglect and crime: the affection which cannot be plucked from the heart where it has lived, although it may serve only to torture and torment it. "Are you living with your husband again?" you mildly inquire of Mrs. L., whom you have known for eight years as an overworked woman, bringing her five delicate children every morning to the Hull-House Day Nursery, bent under the double burden of earning the money which supported them and giving them the tender care which alone kept them alive. The oldest two children have at last gone to work, and Mrs. L. has allowed herself the luxury of staying at home two days a week. And now the worthless husband is back again -- the "gentlemanly gambler" type who, through all vicissitudes, manages to present a white shirtfront and a gold watch to the world, but who is dissolute, idle and extravagant. You dread to think how much his presence will increase the drain upon the family exchequer, and you know that he stayed away until he was certain that the children were old enough to earn money for his luxuries. Mrs. L. does not pretend to take his return lightly, but she replies in all seriousness and simplicity. "You know my feeling for him has never changed. You may think me foolish, but I was always proud of his good looks and educated appearance. I was lonely and homesick during those eight years when the children were little and needed so much doctoring, but I could never bring myself to feel hard toward him, and I used to pray the good Lord to keep him from harm and bring him back to us; so, of course, I'm thankful now." She passes on with a dignity which gives one a new sense of the security of affection.


One Sunday evening an excited young man came to see me, saying that he must have advice; some one must tell him at once what to do, for his wife was in the State's prison serving a sentence for a crime which he himself had committed. He had seen her the day before, and while she had been there only a month he was convinced that she was developing consumption. She was "only seventeen, and couldn't stand the hard work and the 'low-down' women" whom she had for companions. My remark that a girl of seventeen couldn't be in the State penitentiary brought out the whole wretched story.

He had been unsteady for many years and the despair of his thoroughly respectable family who had sent him West the year before. In Arkansas he had fallen in love with a girl of sixteen and married her. His mother was far from pleased, but had finally sent him money to bring his bride to Chicago, in the hope that he might settle down. En route they stopped off at a small town for the naive reason that he wanted to have an aching tooth pulled out. But the tooth gave him an excellent opportunity to have a drink, and before he reached the office of the country practitioner he was abominably intoxicated. As they passed through the vestibule he stole an overcoat hanging there, although the little wife piteously begged him to let it alone. Out of sheer bravado he carried it across his arm as they walked down the street, and was, of course, immediately arrested "with the goods upon him." In sheer terror of being separated from her husband, the wife insisted that she had been an accomplice, and together they were put in County Jail awaiting the action of the Grand Jury. At the end of the sixth week, on one of the rare occasions when they were permitted to talk to each other through the grating which separated the men's visiting quarters from the women's, the young wife told her husband that she had made up her mind to swear that she had stolen the overcoat. What could she do if he were sent to prison and she were left free? She was afraid to go to his people and could not possibly go back to hers. In spite of his protest, that very night she sent for the State's Attorney and made a full confession, giving her age as eighteen in the hope of making her testimony more valuable. From that time on they stuck to the lie through the indictment, the trial and her conviction. Apparently it had seemed to him only a well-arranged plot until he had visited the penitentiary the day before, and had really seen her piteous plight. Remorse had seized him at last, and he was ready to make every restitution. She, however, had no notion of giving up; on the contrary, as she realized more clearly what prison life meant, she was daily more determined to spare him the experience. Her letters, written in the unformed hand of a child -- for her husband had himself taught her to read and write -- were filled with a riot of self-abnegation, the martyr's joy as he feels the iron enter the flesh. Here it was once more: an illiterate, neglected girl, through sheer devotion to a worthless sort of young fellow inclined to drink, had entered into the company of the "transfigured few" of whom the poets sing.


This devotion of man and woman, "the two premises of the 'practical syllogism' and their conclusion the child," is, of course, the tremendous force which makes possible the family, that bond which holds society together and unites the experience of generations into a continuous story. The family has been called "the fountain of morality," "the source of law," "the necessary prelude to the State" itself; but while it is continuous historically, this dual bond must be made anew a myriad times in each generation, and the forces upon which its formation depend must be powerful and unerring. It would be too great a risk to leave it to a force whose manifestations are intermittent and uncertain. The desired result is too grave and fundamental.

The great processes of social life develop themselves through influences of which each participant is unconscious as he struggles alone and unaided in the strength of a current which seizes him and bears him along with myriads of others. Each one knows little concerning the other and cannot imagine that they, too, are having the same experience as himself with an impulse which will not be denied, an absorbing thirst each for his own happiness.


When girls "go wrong" what happens? How has this tremendous force, valuable and necessary for the foundation of the family, become misdirected? When its manifestations follow the legitimate channel of wedded life we call them praiseworthy; but there are other manifestations quite outside the legal and moral channels which yet compel our admiration.

A young woman of my acquaintance was married to a professional criminal named Joe. Three months after the wedding he was arrested and "sent up" for two years. Molly had always been accustomed to many lovers, but she remained faithful to her absent husband for a year. At the end of that time she obtained a divorce which the State law makes easy for the wife of a convict, and married a man who was "rich and respectable" -- in fact, he owned the small manufacturing establishment in which her mother did the scrubbing. He moved his bride to another part of town six miles away, provided her with a "steam-heated flat," furniture upholstered in "cut velvet," and many other luxuries of which heretofore she had only dreamed. One day as she was wheeling a handsome baby-carriage up and down the prosperous street, her brother, who was "Joe's pal," came to tell her that Joe was "out," and had come to the old tenement and was "mighty sore" because "she had gone back on him." Without [page 2] a moment's hesitation Molly turned the baby-carriage in the direction of her old home and never stopped wheeling it until she had compassed the entire six miles. She and Joe rented the old room and went to housekeeping. The rich and respectable husband made every effort to persuade her to come back, and then another series of efforts to recover his child, before he set her free through a court proceeding. Joe, however, steadfastly refused to marry her, still "sore" because she had not "stood by." As he worked only intermittently, and was too closely supervised by the police to do much at his old occupation, Molly was obliged to support the humble menage by scrubbing in a neighboring lodging-house and by taking in to wash "the odd shirts" of the humble lodgers. For five years, during which time two children were born, when she was constantly subjected to the taunts of her neighbors, and when all the charitable agencies refused to give help to such an irregular household, Molly happily went on her course with no shade of regret or sorrow. "I'm all right as long as Joe keeps out of the jug," was her slogan of happiness, low in tone, perhaps, but genuine and game. Her surroundings were as sordid as possible, consisting of a constantly changing series of cheap "furnished rooms" in which the battered baby-carriage was the sole witness of better days. But Molly's heart was full of courage and happiness, and she was never desolate until the criminal husband and lover was "sent up" again, this time on a really serious charge.

I recall a young man whose sweetheart had been sent to the city prison on a charge of disorderly conduct. During his visits to her there he discovered what he had never known before -- that she had been arrested many times. He insisted, therefore, that they must be married the very hour that she was released in order to "keep her straight." During the months of her imprisonment all his savings were spent upon furnishings for the tenement which he was getting ready. The fact that she was about to give birth to a child, of which he was not the father, in nowise discouraged him. To any intimation that such a marriage was sure to prove a mistake he paid no heed. Although one saw the embarking of the matrimonial venture with much misgiving, candor compels me to state that he conquered the situation and that the household is happy and honest.


These irregular manifestations form a link between that world in which each one struggles to "live respectable," and that nether world in which are also found cases of devotion and of enduring affection arising out of the midst of the folly and the shame. The girls there who through all tribulation support their recreant "lovers," or the girl who overcomes love of drink and habits of opium, who renounces luxuries and goes back to uninteresting daily toil for the sake of the good opinion of a man who wishes her to "appear decent," although he never means to marry her, are also impressive.

It is inevitable that a force which is enduring enough to withstand the discouragements, the suffering and privation of daily living, strenuous enough to overcome and rectify the impulses which make for greed and self-indulgence, should be able, even under untoward conditions, to lift up and transfigure those who are really within its grasp and set them in marked contrast to those who are merely playing a game with it or using it for gain. But what has happened to these wretched girls? Why has this beneficent current cast them upon the shores of death and destruction when it should have carried them into the safe port of domesticity? Through whose fault has this basic emotion served merely to trick and deride them? What has organized education done to teach them how to cope with this emotion since they first became conscious of it in the period of adolescence? 

The schools are only now beginning to recognize and direct the adventurous spirit of the boy and the strange dreaminess of the girl which appear then, and to provide proper food for the vivid imagination which at that period takes such new and untried directions. But even the new education makes no attempt to utilize that exuberant stream of youthful spirit which wanders up and down the streets of a summer evening, giggling and shoving and shouting from sheer joy of life and of relief from the grind of all-day factory work. As a matter of mere information we know that it is the same surging energy that produces the song of the bird in the mating season, that it is the joy of life anticipating its continuation; but for all practical action modern society proceeds as if this analogy had never been discovered.


We also know that in old-established communities channels have been provided for this exuberance of youth. Simple communities provide the dances on the village green for the heavily-shod peasants, or the mimic courting of the tarantella. These open manifestations are, however, carefully guarded by rules of convention and inherited artistic expression, the tarantula never becomes a riot, and all of the peasant dances are carried on in groups with well-imposed restraints. The Latin races who most universally use this expression also employ a careful chaperonage over their marriageable daughters and provide husbands for them at an early age. "My father will get a husband for me this winter," announces pretty Angelina, whose father has brought her to a party at Hull-House, and she adds with a toss of her head, "I saw two already, but my father says that they haven't saved enough money to marry me." She rests quite as content in her father's wisdom and ability to provide her with a husband as she does in his capacity to escort her home safely from the party. He does not permit her to cross the threshold after nightfall unaccompanied by himself, and unless the dowry and the husband are provided before she is eighteen he will consider himself derelict in his duty toward her. "Francesca can't even come to the Sodality meeting this winter. The church is only across the street, but her mother won't let her come because her father is out West working on a railroad," is a comment one often hears. The system works well only when it is carried logically through to the end of an early marriage with a properly-provided husband.

Even with the Latin races, when the system is tried in America it often breaks down, and when the Anglo-Saxons anywhere imitate this régime it is usually utterly futile. They follow the first part of the program as far as repression is concerned, but they find it impossible to follow the second because all sorts of inherited notions deter them. The repressed girl, if she is not one of the languishing type, takes matters into her own hands, and finds her pleasures in illicit ways, without her parents' knowledge. "I had no idea my daughter was going to public dances. She always told me she was spending the night with her cousin on the South Side. I hadn't a suspicion of the truth," many a broken-hearted mother explains. An officer who has had a long experience in the Juvenile Court of Chicago, and has listened to hundreds of cases involving wayward girls, gives it as his deliberate impression that a large majority of cases are from families where the discipline had been rigid and where the girl has broken away secretly at first, followed, of course, by open rupture. When the inevitable exposure comes the mother is usually utterly surprised and incredulous. "Strictness" alone, mere watchfulness unaccompanied by companionship and sympathy, is of little value, as the statistics of many Puritanical neighborhoods and remote country districts where public opinion is absolutely against all [gaieties] can testify. The trouble with such communities is that they have taken but half of the convention of the Old World without the remaining half.


Unless we mean to go back to Old-World customs which are already hopelessly broken, there would seem to be but one path open to us in America. That path implies freedom for the young people made safe only through their own self-control. This, in turn, must be based upon knowledge and habits of clean companionship. In point of fact no course between the two is safe in a modern city, and in the most crowded quarters the girls themselves are working out a protective code which reminds one of the instinctive protection that the free-ranging child in the country learns in regard to poisonous plants and "marshy places," or of the cautions and abilities that the mountain child develops in regard to ice and precipices. This statement, of course, does not hold good concerning a large number of children in every crowded city quarter who may be classed as degenerates, the children of careless or dissolute mothers who fall into all sorts of degenerate habits and associations before childhood is passed, who cannot be said to have "gone wrong" at any one moment because they have never been in the right path even of innocent childhood; but the statement is sound concerning thousands of girls who go to and from work every day with crowds of young men who meet them again and again in the occasional evening pleasures of the more decent dance-halls or on a Sunday afternoon in the parks.

The mothers who are of most use to this normal city working-girl are the mothers who develop a sense of companionship with the changing experiences of their daughters, who are willing to modify ill-fitting social conventions into rules of conduct which are of actual service to their children in their daily lives of factory work and of city amusements. Those mothers, through their sympathy and adaptability, substitute keen present interests and activity for solemn warnings and restraint, self-expression for self-repression. Their vigorous family life allies itself by a dozen bonds to the educational, the industrial and the recreational organizations of the modern city, and makes for intelligent understanding, industrial efficiency and sane social pleasures. I have never known a daughter from such a family to "go wrong." And such families are found by the hundreds and thousands.


We cannot afford to be ungenerous to the city in which we live without suffering the penalty which lack of fair interpretation always entails. Let us know the modern city in its weakness and wickedness, and then seek to rectify and purify it until it shall be free at least from the grosser temptations which now beset the young people who are living in its tenement-houses and working in its factories. The mass of these young people are possessed of good intentions and they are equipped with a certain understanding of city life. This itself could be made a most valuable social instrument toward securing innocent recreation and better social organization. They are already serving the city in so far as it is honeycombed with mutual benefit societies, with "pleasure clubs," with organizations connected with churches and factories which are filling a genuine social need. A study of nationalities made ten years ago in the "red-light" district of Chicago showed that the majority of the girls in undesirable houses were American girls who had come from the country, farmers' daughters who had been bewildered and betrayed during their first few years of unaccustomed city life. Had these girls possessed a membership in some social organization or pleasure club it might easily have given them the outlet and direction which they so sadly needed.

One of the most pathetic sights in the public dance-halls of Chicago is the number of young men, obviously honest young fellows from the country, who stand about vainly hoping to make the acquaintance of some "nice girl." They look eagerly up and down the rows of girls, many of whom are drawn to the hall by the same keen desire for pleasure and social intercourse which the lonely young men themselves feel.

One Sunday night at twelve o'clock I had occasion to go into a large public dance-hall situated not in the Hull-House neighborhood, but in quite another part of town. I was standing at the rail looking for the girl I had come to find, when a young man approached me and quite simply asked me to introduce him to some "nice girl," saying that he did not know any one there. On my reply that a public dance-hall was not the best place in which to look for a nice girl he replied: "But I don't know any other place where there is a chance to meet any kind of a girl. I'm awfully lonesome since I came to Chicago." And then he added rather defiantly: "Some nice girls do come here! It's one of the best halls in town." He was voicing the "bitter loneliness" that many city men now prosperous remember to have experienced during the first  years after they had "come up to town."  Occassionally the right sort of man and girl meet each other in these dance-halls and the romance with such a tawdry beginning ends happily and respectably. But, unfortunately, mingled with the respectable young men seeking to form the acquaintance of young women through the only channel which is available to them are many young fellows of evil purpose, and among the girls who have left their lonely boarding-houses or rigid homes for a "little fling" are likewise women who openly desire to make money from the young men whom they meet, and back of it all is the desire to profit by the sale of intoxicating and "doctored" drinks.


The whole machinery is wretchedly inadequate and full of danger to whosoever may approach it, and yet who is responsible for its inadequacy and dangers? We certainly cannot expect the fathers and mothers who are brought up on farms in the country places to appreciate or rectify these dangers. We cannot expect the young people themselves to cling to conventions which are totally unsuited to modern city conditions, nor yet to be equal to the task of forming new conventions through which this more agglomerate social life may express itself.

By all means let us preserve the safety of the home, but let us also make safe the shop and the street in which our young people work and walk. Let  us not leave them bewildered and uninstructed in regard to the experience which must inevitably come to them, and which has varied, remote and indirect expressions.

When the emotional force does not find the traditional line of domesticity it serves as a cancer in the very tissues of society and as a disrupter of the securest social bonds. No attempt is made to treat its manifestations with dignity or to give it possible social utility. The spontaneous joy, the clamor for pleasure, the desire of the young people to appear finer and better and altogether more lovely than they really are, the idealization not only of each other but of the whole earth, which they regard but as a theatre for their noble exploits, the unworldly ambitions, the romantic hopes, the make-believe world in which they live, are regarded by certain accredited writers as the securest foundation for the art impulse. If properly utilized what might it not do to make our sordid cities more beautiful, more companionable? The primitive peoples openly recognize the emotions connected directly with the psychological development of the youth, as did many pagan customs. Even the ceremonies connected with the assumption of the toga virilis on the part of the Roman youths has such a foundation.


For many years the age of adolescence has been utilized as the moment for religious education. All the great religious organizations, including the historic Church of Christendom, have instructed and confirmed the youth between the ages of twelve and fifteen, recognizing and directing that moment of expanding life and aspiration into religious channels and expression. But with the later and more definite emotions of adolescence no religious or educational organizations attempt to deal. We are timid and inconsistent, and unless we repress we do nothing. We recognize the "imitative play" impulse of little children and provide them with tiny bricks with which to "build a house," and dolls upon which they may lavish their tenderness. We exalt the love of the mother and the stability of the home, but in regard to those difficult years between childhood and maturity we beg the question and merely found institutions for those who "go wrong." Let us not continue the inconsistency of declaring the home to be the foundation of society and then do nothing to direct the force upon which the continuity of the home depends.