19th at 100: Commemorating the Suffrage Struggle and Its Legacies in Northeast Ohio

Settlement Houses

Following the Civil War, Cleveland female reformers focused more on helping the young working women in the city than on fighting for suffrage. Women from surrounding rural areas, as well as women who had emigrated from Europe, had found work in Cleveland’s factories during the war but suffered competition for work as men returned from fighting.

The postwar industrial expansion in Cleveland drew huge numbers of immigrants to Cleveland, and the Women’s Christian Association of Cleveland, founded in 1868, saw a need for respectable housing for single women, opening several boarding houses for them. The need was great: “By 1880, 10,000 Cleveland women were employed, with well over 75% as domestic servants, laundresses, dressmakers, and milliners. At the turn of the century, 20% of Cleveland's labor force was female.”

Taking cues from Progressive reformers in Chicago, Flora Stone Mather led other wealthy Cleveland women in founding settlement houses for these workers. The Goodrich House was the first to be built in 1897. These organizations offered educational programs and resources which intended to help women better their lives.

Other settlement houses and programs followed, including Jane Edna Hunter’s Phillis Wheatley Association to board young black women. Hunter had worked her way into the middle class as a nurse and a lawyer, and she wanted to provide safe housing and employment support for working black women, who were particularly vulnerable to exploitative landlords and employers. As wealthy and middle-class women saw firsthand the struggles of female workers--the long hours, terrible conditions, and low wages--they turned to politics to change these problems. As historian Lois Scharf observed, “This flourishing social feminist activity and sense of femaleness also led to increased attention to political rights.”

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