Blog Emerging Gender Topics in Public Administration

Learning from our Diverse Past: Municipal Housekeeping and Care Ethics

By: Patricia Shields

In 2018 when the publisher Edward Elgar first contacted me about editing the Handbook on Gender and Public Administration, I asked myself why. My scholarship in on the history of women in PA and on Jane Addams in particular, was the only reason I could muster. As an active member of ASPA’s Section on Women in PA and a previous contributor to this blog, I was excited for the opportunity to develop such a needed resource. I was also excited to share historical stories of amazing women in PA. More importantly, PA’s history contains all kinds of missing voices, which we need to discover and integrate into the texture of our field. A history filled almost exclusively with the voices of white males is a contemporary problem. This exploration is still in its early stages.

Through the works of Camilla Stivers (1995, 2000), we have learned that in the late 1800’s and early 1900s at the time of PA’s American origin story women developed an alternative model of PA through their work in the Settlement Movement. They became a kind of boots-on-the-ground network of non-profit, residential community/education and service centers designed to address urban problems brought on by industrialization and mass immigration. One of the leaders of this movement, Jane Addams, established, Hull House, in Chicago. Hull House was predominantly run by women, who lived among their immigrant neighbors.  Together they learned from one another and worked to improve living and working conditions within the community. My chapter in the Handbook highlighted the stories of a few of the women who lived and learned at Hull House. These women became leaders and developed what Stivers called the Settlement model of public administration.  

What can students of contemporary public administration learn from the women pioneers of the settlement movement? These women pioneers had a radical way to conceptualize city government. They argued that instead of thinking cities should operate like a business, cities should be run like a household that cared for its members. At the time there was an idealized and ruthless, macho “survival of the fittest model” that guided business practices. This fit well with the rugged individual model of the pioneer. As a result, urban poverty was viewed as an individual problem attributable to vices like laziness and alcohol abuse. This model helped to make the captains of industry wealthy and fueled industrialization. Further, corrupt contracting practices coupled with crony hiring practices created a business and government partnership that often left the city a stinking mess filled with health hazards. For example, corrupt garbage collection practices left rotting horse carcasses in the roads where curious children would play on them. The experiences of men, who at that time generally left the care of children to women, developed a model of city government filled with blind spots.

Women organized to champion a different model. The settlement women led the charge. I hope you can see how radical “Civic Housekeeping” was compared to the “City as Business” model. Families care for their members. They make sure the home is a place of refuge and safety where the basic needs of all are considered – including women and children. Families members care for and nourish each other. This model emphasized an ethic of care rather than an ethic of self-reliance. Women organized to change the urban-industrial environment. Settlement workers were a leading edge of this work.  Their efforts brought parks and playgrounds to cities as well as child labor laws, juvenile courts, and workplace safety laws. In Chicago, Hull House residents led an effort to improve garbage collection that dramatically lowered the infant mortality rate.  I mention but a fraction of the reforms’ women, using the banner of “civic housekeeping”, ushered in. And, they did all of this as disenfranchised people unable to express their preferences through the vote. 

The reforms remained but the civic household model of governance and the names of the reformers, who were often seen as social workers, never entered the PA historical narrative.  We should reclaim this model along with the care ethic that is its springboard. Care ethics supports social justice. The two go naturally hand in hand. I have introduced the civic household model to students in my ethics class along with readings on care and social ethics. In the process students are introduced to the settlement model of public administration and the works of Jane Addams. I was surprised and pleased. My students enthusiastically embrace and apply these concepts. The women students are happy to find heroines they can relate to. 

So, the takeaway here is that investigating the history of women in PA reveals the role of care ethics in public administration. Care ethics brings diversity to the ideas that support public administration. It belongs in our public discourse and in the PA ethics classroom. At the bottom of this post find a few sources on the history of women in PA and on care and social ethics all written by women. Many of the sources, all written by women, can be found in the Handbook on Gender and PA.  Please dig in!

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About the Author

Patricia M. Shields is a Regents’ professor in the Department of Political Science at Texas State University.  She along with Nicole Elias edited the Handbook on Gender and Public Administration. She enjoys working with students on their research projects. She has published extensively in public administration theory, methodology, women in PA history, and civil military relations. She is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.