The Girl Problem: Its Community Aspects, April 1914

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The Girl Problem, Its Community Aspect

Miss Jane Addams, Hull House, Chicago

It is very difficult to approach the girl question by itself because the girl problem, as we have come to call it, is but a part of the general social and industrial conditions which have developed very rapidly in America during the last twenty-five of fifty years. Of course, it is a truism to say that never before have so many girls worked outside of their homes as at present. The women are not doing any more work than they used to do, but they formerly worked in the house where the girl was under her mother's eye and direction. Now many things are being done outside of the house. The girl leaves home early in the morning and stays away all day and comes back in the evening, sometimes late at night, and the whole situation is very much changed from what it has ever been before. Of course, the parents are not yet accustomed to the change, and the community itself has been very slow in adapting itself to this changed condition. Personally, I see a great many foreign girls whose parents are very much shocked by the mere fact of a girl going out alone and still more by the fact that she comes home alone in the evening. Very few Italian girls go out in the evening without a member of the family with her as chaperon. I think the first thing we have to face in this girl problem in relation [page 2] to the community is the fact that the mothers are bewildered, that the old notion of care and guardianship which they bring with them from the old county is now so changed that they do not know what to do about it. Another difficulty arises from the fact than among the girls from Northern Europe, especially the Poles, a great many of them come over without their families. A group of girls who come over from Poland by themselves find that they can earn money and send it home. It is becoming almost as usual to send the daughter ahead of the family as it was formerly to send the young men. Of course, the dangers are very obvious. So I think before I begin on the girl problem we will have to take into account some of these general industrial and economic conditions.

The price of living is something which comes into all our calculations concerning standards. Careful estimates have been made in New York and Chicago as to what will form a living wage for a working girl, and the whole subject is continually being carried back from the girl herself into the girl's family. The situation is influenced not alone by the wage which the girl herself receives, but by the family wage. The low wage of her father means a low standard which poverty has imposed on her from the very beginning. From the time she was a little girl she has not had proper care, and we come again into the region of economics, for in all the discussion of the moral situation, we find that it has a direct relation to housing conditions. In our neighborhood we have seen many girls grow up in the community, then as their parents prospered they moved away into better conditions. Some of them we have seen marrying there and rearing children so that we now have the second generation coming to Hull House. The thing that is impressed on my mind is that so many of them come out so well. It may be due to the vigilance of their parents and the training which they have had in older communities, it may be their religious training, or the discipline of the schools, but we see girls who are under great temptations, receiving very little care, the majority of them coming out extremely well. Then, of course, there is the occasional girl who loses her hold, who slips, and the whole community is horrified over her fall. She carries a certain lesson with her, for the mothers all point to [page 3] her as a warning to their daughters. Of course, that grows less and less possible as the community is more shifting. I feel the greatest danger is among the girls who do not obviously go wrong but who add to the growth of occasional prostitution. Personally I think that is the most dangerous thing which can befall any community. These girls who continue to keep a foothold in respectable society and yet who are under strong suspicion, constantly pull down the standards of the community.

At Hull House we have first and foremost made a great effort to do something to bring the immigrant mothers and American daughters into closer relation. We have one club that is a family club. It is for all the members of the family who enjoy the same sort of things. Then later the girls may go into special clubs for girls, but there is this background to the new club that the mothers also belong to the House. We have always made a great deal in our Women's Club of the relation of the mothers to their daughters and to the young girls of the community. The women themselves twice a month give parties to the young people of the neighborhood. They do not invite to those parties their own daughters, but they try to get girls whom they think ought to be brought into relations with Hull House, who frequent dangerous dance halls, girls who are on the edge of wrongdoing. These women know, of course, a great many more girls than the residents can possibly know. That has been an enormous help. The Women's Club also gives what we call a neighborhood party once a month, and to that they invite the older people. Very often they bring their daughters. What we try to do when we get the mothers and daughters into the same club is to do the things which interest them both, and especially make the mothers appear as interesting as we can to the daughters. We have a chorus of foreign women, all of which tends to translate to the children something of the life of the parents. That, I think, is important, and it is sometimes forgotten in our work for young people, particularly among immigrants who are often very much bewildered by the new life.

We have two lines of instruction at Hull House; domestic classes and trade classes. The first comprises sewing, cooking, etc., attended by about 350 girls. We have a little trade school in which the girls are prepared to enter dressmaking establishments; [page 4] this was started after the tailors' strike. For three months they are taught by a regular dressmaker who was for many years the head of a large shop. There are about thirty girls in that. We have never failed to find places for them. They begin at once to earn $4.50, $5 and $6 a week, instead of the starvation wages in a sweat shop.

On the social side, we have always felt that it was a great advantage to have boys and girls together. I suppose in that we differ a little from the plan of the Young Men's Christian Association. When the young people say they would like to have a mixed club they have one. The House makes no regulation in that regard. Of course there is an age when boys would not have girls in their club and when girls would not have boys in their club, at which time no comment is made, but when they want to invite each other it is all right. So we have quite a number of clubs which are composed of boys and girls and young men and women, and then a small number of clubs which are composed altogether of girls. That has gone on for many years at Hull House. We have never had any distressing results from it. Where a girl needs instruction in social life is in her relation to young men. We try to show them how they may have a pleasant time with them, which seems to us very important.

Many of our young people who are married and living in other parts of the city, come back for their annual reunions, which are very pleasant and tend to hold them together. One group of young men has been meeting at the House for sixteen years, and they plan to keep it up as long as they live. A structure for social intercourse is what the great portions of the city need, the social life being so unlike the village life in Europe. The notion of a large city is still new in the world.

Most of our clubs meet once a week; some of them twice a week. It is very important to set a standard for social life and to establish it so firmly that it becomes voluntary. I remember once in London I visited a club of young men, with a long waiting list which had been kept for nearly a year. The manager of the club believed that the club was quite as useful to those who were kept out as those who were in. I think something of that sort is necessary for the worst possible atmosphere in a [page 5] settlement or a Young Men's Christian Association is to have people thinking that they are coming as a favor to you. Then you have no way of enforcing your standards. It is a little of the attitude of the old-fashioned Sunday School picnic, where numbers were the great object with nothing definite in mind beyond that. It is demoralizing to the young people who come. Secure people by having something to offer them which is good for them, which has something in it which they realize they need and to get which perhaps demands a sacrifice.

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