the Vocational Divide:
Garlin Spencer on Women, Work, and Family
UNIVERSALIST WOMEN’S HERITAGE SOCIETY
I stumbled into a
relationship with Anna Garlin Spencer by whimsically pulling her name
out of the Compendium of Resources published by the Unitarian
Universalist Women’s Heritage Society when I needed a topic for
a final paper in a course entitled “Roots of Feminism” at
Harvard University. I quickly became fascinated by Spencer’s
efforts in the area of balancing work and family. The title of this
paper, “Vocational Divide,” comes from a chapter in
Spencer’s book, Woman’s Share in Social Culture.
The earthy, sensitive
way in which Spencer handled the issues of women, work, and family
fostered in me a great admiration for those who make their stand on
the middle ground. Spencer chose to follow neither the radical nor
the conservative paths open to her at the turn of the 20th century;
instead, she sought balance. She is an early role model for women who
strive to have both a progressive, fulfilling career and a
supportive, nurturing family.
Many thanks to Dorothy
May Emerson, the founder and director of the Unitarian Universalist
Women’s Heritage Society, for her support and advice while I
was developing this paper. Thanks also to the board of the UUWHS for
helping to fund this project and waiting patiently for its
completion. Much appreciation to Jone Johnson, who is currently
working on a book about Spencer and who did the great service of
reading and commenting on my endeavor. Others who were invaluable to
this project are Susan Snyder, Norman and Marilyn Bellemore, Karen
Townsend, and my wonderfully supportive husband, I. Fabrizio
1851 April 15 AGS born, the youngest of four, in Attleboro MA to
Francis Warren Garlin and Nancy Mason Carpenter Garlin. Early years
spent in Providence RI.
1868 At age 17, AGS
joins Women’s Suffrage Movement of Providence.
1869-71 AGS does
private college tutoring in Providence schools.
1869-1886 AGS writes
for Providence Daily Journal.
1870 Francis Warren
Garlin (father) dies. AGS begins speaking In public.
1875 Bell Street Chapel built for religious liberals by James Eddy,
prominent art dealer and metal smith.
leaves Union Church (Congregational) over doctrinal issues and joins
Providence Free Religious Society.
1876-1878 AGS preaches at Progressive Friends, Chester PA; Free
Religious Society, Providence RI; Parker Memorial, Boston MA
1878, May AGS speaks at Free Religious Association annual meeting;
William Henry Spencer is also on the program.
Aug. 15 AGS marries Spencer, a Unitarian minister and, for the next
decade, assists him in churches in Haverhill and Florence MA and Troy
1879 Fletcher Carpenter Spencer (son) is born and dies. AGS’s
diary shows her in tremendous pain and grief over the loss.
1884 Lucy Spencer
1889 Spencer family moves to Waupaca WI, where WHS becomes partner
in family business, a loan collection agency.
Eddy dies in Providence. AGS asked by Eddy family to return to
Providence to assist trustees of James Eddy. She also becomes vice
president of Providence Women’s Suffrage Association and member
of other organizations.
1890 AGS helps found American Purity Alliance, renamed the American
Social Hygiene Association, of which AGS becomes Chair of Family
1891 By unanimous vote, AGS ordained by Bell Street Chapel and
becomes first woman minister in RI and first minister to preach from
1891-1897 AGS is
member of Board of State Home and School for Dependent Children.
1891-1902 AGS both
pastor and president of Bell Street Chapel Society.
1893 WHS becomes minister of Fourth Unitarian Church, Providence,
living at 387 Broadway with AGS. AGS vice president of Providence
Society for Organizing
remains on board of directors until 1895. Also serves as chair of
International Congress of Charities, Correction, and Philanthropy at
World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Attends FRA
Convention, Unitarian Convention, and World Parliament of Religions.
1894 AGS is vice
president of Free Kindergarten Association.
1898 AGS attends
first class of New York School of Philanthropy.
1899-1901 AGS member of Providence chapter of Women’s
Christian Temperance Movement (WCTU) along with Miss Sarah M
1901 Nancy Mason Carpenter Garlin (mother) dies. AGS elected to
four-year term on FRA board of directors.
1902 AGS takes leave from Bell Street Chapel, moves to New York City
with daughter Lucy, who is starting a theater career. Resignation
given to Chapel in March, but asked to remain on leave of absence.
1903 AGS ceases all official connection with Bell Street Chapel.
Lectures for Ethical Society of New York and preaches in Unitarian
1903-1907 AGS is associate director of New York School of
Philanthropy and lectures there until 1912.
1904-1912 AGS is associate director of New York Society for Ethical
Culture. Leaves after differences arise with director Felix Adler.
1907 Sarah Martin Carpenter (aunt) dies. Active in many of same
organizations and may have been great influence on AGS.
1908-1911 AGS is
special lecturer on Social Service at University of Wisconsin.
1908 AGS begins series of magazine articles in Journal of Sociology,
Popular Science Monthly, and others.
1910-1911 AGS is
director of Institute of Municipal and Social Services.
1913-1918 AGS is Professor Sociology and Ethics at Meadville
Theological School, Meadville PA.
1918 AGS is lecturer
at University of Chicago.
1920-1931 AGS is special lecturer in social science at Columbia
University and helps develop its consultation center.
1923 William Henry
Spencer dies after ten years of invalidism.
1931 Anna Garlin
Spencer dies of heart attack or stroke while
attending a dinner of the League of Nations Association.
Born in the midst of
Victorian feminism, Anna Garlin Spencer struggled to define women and
family in the light of a newly industrialized society. As a
contemporary and friend of Lucy Stone, Charlotte Perkins Gilman,
Susan 13. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott, Spencer wrote about women’s
suffrage, social hygiene, spirituality, and democracy. As an activist
in the National Woman Suffrage Association, Free Religious
Association (FRA), and Women’s Peace Party, her work centered
on careers, women, and family relations. As a minister, educator,
writer, wife, and mother involved in several women’s rights
organizations, Spencer endeavored to balance her career and her
family. She is what Josephine Donovan in her book, Feminist Theory,
describes as a “social reform feminist who wished to bring
homelike nurturing into public life.”1
Unlike many of her
contemporaries, Spencer found she could serve women’s interests
best within an institutional framework. She did not remove herself
from society in order to make a cultural statement; rather, she
founded and participated in many organizations. She was a natural
activist who urged the development of the Providence Free
Kindergarten Society, the Providence Organization for Charity, and
the New York School of Philanthropy while quietly remaining in the
shadows of these organizations. Her knack for gracefully and
competently filling the role of vice president, associate director,
or member of the board allowed her to shape associations from inside
without the public attention often faced by presidents and directors.
As a group builder,
speaker, and writer, she was in great demand. The Providence Free
Religious Society declined to accept her wish to withdraw her
membership (“we consider your name in our books of more value
than most of its members”), moving to make her an honorary
member while she was away.2 She was asked several times to serve on
the national board of the Free Religious Association and was
solicited by the West London Ethical Society in England for her
written work.3 Her skills in working with people through practical
steps, without separating herself from the mainstream of culture, may
be partially to blame for the loss of her history. Many of the women
who are remembered drastically removed themselves from institutions
and society and became radicals on the margin. How much more
difficult it is to work within the conventions of society to
instigate change! The balancing act of being a radical activist and a
cooperative team member who values and is valued by others is truly a
Brief Spiritual Visit in Providence
The strength Spencer
derived from her understanding of the holy intertwined itself in all
her subsequent work with women and families. Spencer began her
independent spiritual quest early. A letter dated July 11, 1876,
states that Union Church (Congregational) “voted that—for
change in their religious beliefs and at their request that—they
[Anna Carpenter Garlin and Lucy Hale Garlin] may no longer be
considered as in covenant relation with this church.”4 Although
the sisters’ names were stricken from the rolls, they were
invited to return if their beliefs changed. About this time, Anna C.
Garlin began preaching in Pennsylvania, Providence, and Boston.5
She may have met
William Spencer when both were speakers at the annual meeting of the
Free Religious Association, and both were present at the home of Lucy
Stone in Haverhill, Massachusetts, on one occasion. Stone expressed
surprise that this brief visit may have led to their wedding on
August 15, 1878,6 and surprise was the general reaction of those
receiving wedding invitations.
Spencer was an agnostic
Unitarian minister, 11 years Anna’s senior. He was already
holding a post in Haverhill, Massachusetts, where she joined him as
an associate minister more than as a preacher’s wife.7 She
shared two more pastorates with him before his agnostic views
prevented his continuing in the ministry.
Anna Garlin Spencer
received her first solo post almost by accident. While she and her
family were living in Waupaca, Wisconsin, where William Spencer was a
partner in the family loan and collection agency,8 she was asked by
the Eddy family to return to Providence RI to work on the memoirs and
history of James Eddy. Eddy was a prominent art dealer and metal
smith who had built the Bell Street Chapel in 1875 to provide a space
for liberal religion in Providence. Although Spencer intended to
return only for a short time to write Eddy’s memoirs, she
remained for twelve years and became the first ordained female
minister in Rhode Island.9 Because of a disagreement between Eddy and
the Providence Free Religious Society over the use of the word “God,”
all of Spencer’s predecessors had been asked to hold their
meetings in the fellowship hail. She was the first minister to preach
in the sanctuary.
In 1902, signs of
strain and overwork began to manifest themselves. While in New York,
Spencer wrote to the Bell Street Society asking not to be reelected
president of the society because, “I expected at the conclusion
of our first ten years to resign the presidency to a member of the
society. ... On general principle it is not best that the minister of
the society should act as its president.”1° In March of the
same year, Spencer tendered her resignation to the Bell Street Chapel
Society, which refused to let her go, placing her instead on a
one-year sabbatical. In February, 1903, answering a letter from the
secretary of the Bell Street Chapel Society, she again explained her
reasons for resigning:
made no promises to you last Spring as to what I might think wise to
do in March of this year, you will remember. Hence I have held myself
free to decide all the grave concerns involved on their merits. I
must now renew my resignation of last year and make it final. I have
given as many years of my life’s service to the work of Bell
St. Chapel as I feel I ought to do. No other field can ever have just
that element of personal attachment which results from union of
leader and people from the inception of a movement. But I have been
called for some time past, notably during the last three years, to
other forms of social and religious leadership which offer a wider if
not dearer field, and which I feel that now I ought to accept.
Moreover I have always believed that an independent Society or Church
(which must of necessity depend so exclusively upon the character and
personality of its leader) should change leaders once in a while In
order to have a variety of gifts placed at its service.11
This marked the end of
Spencer’s full-time ministerial work, although she continued to
preach on occasion. Yet in all her work it is impossible to escape
the spiritual essence of her commitment to democracy, justice, and
Families and Working Women
revolution exacerbated the struggle women felt in their changing
roles. The traditional Victorian view of women held that they were
frail house-bound creatures not fit for work outside the home. A
vocational divide increasingly separated the time and talents of
women as the Victorian establishment gave way. Ambition, talent, and
luck could land a woman in a career until she married. After
marriage, a woman often found herself with two careers: one as
housewife and primary caregiver to children and another as a
wage-earning career woman. After marriage, a woman must divide her
time between family and work or, more often, quit working altogether.
Balancing work and family is a crucial issue, yet so far it has been
women who must walk this tightrope.
To clarify Anna Garlin
Spencer’s view on “the vocational divide,” it is
helpful to compare her book, Woman’s Share in Social Culture ,
with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Women and Economics. Spencer
grappled with the changing roles of men and women. She saw modern
industry and political evolution changing the way in which both
genders viewed work and family. “The business of being a woman
is precisely like the business of being a man; namely development of
the highest and finest and noblest personality possible.”12
Gilman found the turn-of-the-century expectation concerning women’s
responsibilities toward housework and children impossible to accept.
Her tale, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” is a frightening story
which fictitiously retells her personal experience of being denied
intellectual stimulus when forced to take a rest cure because she was
unable or unwilling to care for her house and child.13 The real cure
for Gilman was returning to the lecture circuit and pursuing her many
In her book, Women
and Economics, Gilman observed that the family unit is no longer
the center of human life; rather it is only part of the social and
educational relationships that a child needs. She pointed to the
“incessant friction of the relations ... restlessness of the
young, [and] the flat treason of deserting parents”14 as
reasons why private home life can be harmful to both children and
adults. Private homes, she wrote, “are not suited to develop
the qualities now needed in human beings.”15 The sociologist in
Gilman led her to suggest that her readers refrain from moral
condemnation of the family unit and focus their attention on the
scientific evolution and recreation of family and society.
In order to alter
women’s plight as economic dependents, Gilman sought “to
break up that relic of the patriarchal age, the family as an economic
unit.”16 Later in her career, she demystified the private world
of the “home,” describing it as a place ruled by
ignorance, overloaded with work, and emotionally and intellectually
draining enough to retard any growth or social evolution of the
housewife.17 She also launched an attack on “Motherhood,”
pronouncing “Mother” to be a lousy cook, overbearing in
manner, and a poor nurturer both intellectually and morally. “Mother”
was like this because her own maturation possibilities were stunted
by a family system that did not allow women an opportunity to develop
Anna Garlin Spencer
expounded on this theme in an amusing anecdote of how a husband
(doctor) and wife (music teacher) handled their careers after
marriage. Surprisingly enough, the wife continued to teach after
their marriage. When her husband needed to relocate to increase his
practice, however, she was to quit teaching and “be taken care
of’ by her husband. Because she was no longer teaching and
bringing in the extra income to pay for hired help, she took over the
housework. Much to her distress, the “present occupations (of
the house) bore a strong resemblance to “work.”
Obviously, though, this could not be real labor since she was now
being “taken care of’ for the first time in her married
was not considered gainful employment, many families in both the 19th
and 20th centuries would find it exceedingly hard to survive without
the tireless work of the wife. Gilman suggested radical changes in
domestic arrangements to correct the economic dependence and retarded
growth of women. Her idea was to professionalize domestic work by
training apt people for the duties of child rearing, cooking, and
cleaning. This would be a collective effort, an integration of public
and private life that would end enormous waste in time and resources.
With this collective “housewife,” a woman would no longer
work a wageless 24-hour day. This new arrangement would allow women
and men to choose careers that suited them rather than those forced
on them by gender.20
research in Woman’s Share showed that many poor and
working class women did take jobs for four or five years before
marriage, but their tasks were similar to the ones performed in the
home with little chance of learning a marketable skill or mobility to
a better paid occupation. She quoted statistics showing that on
20-30% of women aged 10-60 were involved in gainful employment,
receiving wages for work, while 80-85% of men were gainfully
employed. Her findings also showed that women were only employed in
the “lowest and meanest” occupations.21 Spencer aptly
called the jobs available to women “labor leavings.”22
These jobs were poorly paid and often dangerous. Married women,
widows, deserted wives, and middle-aged self-supporting women worked
as weavers, dyers, and food preparers. Untrained and desperate, they
were easily exploited by an industrial society.
Spencer may have agreed
with Gilman that the economic dependency of women often wrongly
channeled their energy, aborted human growth, and generally prevented
creative and transcending work; however, Spencer did not believe that
the problem of split demands of family and home, economic worth, and
equality could be solved solely through better economic standing.
Conditions at that time afforded neither economic independence nor a
steady job for most women. Spencer sensed that in order to change the
working and home conditions of women, a higher value had to be placed
on both women and family.23
Spencer agreed with
Gilman that modern industry and democracy offered new opportunities
to women. However, while Gilman focused her energies on the issues of
economic and social evolution facing women, Spencer injected her work
with a liberal spirituality and an earthy understanding of human
nature and relationships. An article written for the Ladies’
Home Journal shows Spencer’s first-hand knowledge of the
struggles within the family. In “What Makes a Home,” she
candidly looked at courting and marriage, giving practical advice on
how to develop a democratic family partnership. “Falling in
love” is a springboard for many other questions and
realizations that should take place before marriage. Spencer realized
“that in a real partnership one cannot have all the sacrificial
service and the other be content with giving it.”24 A
commitment in fairness and balance of duties is necessary. She also
asked the engaged couple to look closely at family background,
racially, religiously, nationally, and mentally. She offered an
invaluable list of questions sure to bring up key issues if dealt
with honestly. These are the main issues that Spencer believed affect
religious unity or difference;
whether or not both want children;
whether or not the woman wants to keep on with her own work after
what scale of living can both be contented with;
what shall be done when either or both have some special duty toward
father or mother;
in what way does each like to take a vacation or indulge in
To Spencer, marriage
and family were salvageable institutions based on more than the
economic dependence of the woman on a husband. Walking open- eyed and
guided by realities rather than wishful illusions, two people can
create a balanced healthy partnership instead of socially sanctified
prostitution. Spencer urged young people to take the liberty
available to them in an American democratic society: “freedom
is a means, not an end; a power to choose, a challenge, not an
assertion.”26 How one builds a home is one of those choices.
Spencer did not make
light of the fact that marriage poses difficult adjustments and
changes in personal habits, especially when children are born. She
did not care for Gilman’s plan to do away with the private home
system of child raising. Satirically, Spencer spoke of the
“omnipresent kindergarten, enlarged public school, and
supervised play center, [and] summer camp.”27 She held two
views that worked against this style of child raising: 1) assistant
mothers and daycare are only for the rich, and 2) the family is of
tremendous importance in the development of human personality and
values. Although Gilman did include everyone in her image of
cooperative living, Spencer was concerned for the poor and wondered
how these services could exist for them.28
Anna Garlin Spencer
viewed the vocational divide with a different eye than did Charlotte
Perkins Gilman. Spencer did not encourage a “separate but
equal” attitude between husband and wife. Her own life as a
capable minister, educator, director, and organizational office
holder expressed in action her belief in the unlimited capabilities
of women in integrated home-work situations. She viewed the
democratization and individual development of everyone in the family
as part of a changing process that both women and men need to
Family and Its
Members, a work published by Spencer only eight years before her
death, explains in more detail her idea of the structure of the
family unit in a democratic society. Spencer cherished the family as
an “inner circle of love which comes to us by virtue simply of
our being.”29 This inner circle of love had another key
ingredient: democracy. Spencer held the “fundamental belief in
the worth and dignity of every human being and the equal right of
each and all to personality.”30 No one was to be solely in the
service of another or to have their value estimated along such lines;
instead, each person should seek perfection as an individual by
making a contribution to the common life. According to Spencer, “the
essence of democracy” began and was put to the test in the
family unit.3’ She took the ideals of democracy from the
outside world and embraced them as a welcome member of the family. As
the title of her book suggests, no group is greater than its members;
how, then, can a country based on democracy function properly without
its members practicing democracy within family units?
democratic family spiritually and economically is a balancing act
that Anna and William Spencer handled in partnership. The term
“practical activist” applies in Spencer’s case.
Soundly grounded in her own spirituality, she sought to move the
world from the inside out. A nurturer of independent personal
development, Spencer looked beyond the trappings of economic freedom
to the shocking truth that women needed to recreate a spirituality of
their own to share with the rest of the world.
One fault in Spencer’s
theory may be that she felt the industrial revolution had already
brought about this change. Sadly we know this is not true. The editor
of the 1966 edition of Gilman’s Women and Economics found that
women were still employed in “labor leavings” at that
late date.32 In the 1990s many women in the western world are
financially independent and working in high status positions only to
bump their heads on the “glass ceiling” of limited
advancement. So far, economic independence has not brought equality
in the home or work place. Nor have commercial childcare or household
appliances relieved mothers of their 24-hour job as primary care
The thoughts of Anna
Garlin Spencer which could have helped us over the last 60 years have
been buried in a few dusty library shelves. The notable twelve-year
period at Bell Street, where she claimed public fame as the first
female minister in Rhode Island, is only a flash in a brilliant
career. Her selfless work behind the scenes in many radical movements
has allowed her voice to go unheard. Few people are comfortable in
the spotlight of public radicalism, and often those in the spotlight
have trouble joining with others to build change. Spencer made the
transition look easy. Most of us will never be great writers,
speakers, or radicals, but we can be group builders, members, and
supporters of women and men in their struggle for new patterns of
Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions of American Feminism
(New York: Ungar, 1985), 50.
Religious Society, “To Anna Garlin Spencer,” 18 May 1880,
Swarthmore Peace Collection, Swarthmore College, 1979, microfilm
3West London Ethical
Society, “To Anna Garlin Spencer,” 15 July 1913,
Swarthmore Peace Collection, microfilm 84.1.
“To Anna Garlin Spencer,” 11 July 1876, Swarthmore Peace
Collection, microfilm 84.1.
5Franny Plamer Purity,
“Writings of Anna Garlin Spencer of Providence, RI,”
n.p., n.d., 1.
6Lucy Stone to AGS, 6
August 1878, Swarthmore Peace Collection, microfilm 84.1.
7Edward T. James, et
al., eds., Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical
Dictionary (Cambridge MA: Belknap, 1971) III, 33 1-332.
8Jone F. Johnson, “Anna
Garlin Spencer: Reformer, Minister, and Educator,” n.p.,
9Anna Garlin Spencer,
“Parting Words,” 15 June 1902 (Providence RI: n.p.,
1902), 15. Spencer was ordained in 1891, making her the first
resident minister of Bell Street Chapel.
10AGS to Bell Street
Chapel Society and Congregation, 3 Jan. 1902, in Bell Street Chapel
attic (Providence: n.p., 1993) 1.
11AGS to George F.
Ball, 24 Feb. 1903, Bell Street Chapel attic (Providence: n.p.) 2.
Share in Social Culture (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1912), 158.
Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Ann J. Lane, ed., The
Gilma.n Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 3-20.
14Gilman, Women and
Economics: A Study of the Economic Relations between
Men and Women as a
Factor in Social Evolution (New York: Harper, 1966), 273.
Makes a Home: The Problem as Youth Faces It,” Ladies’
Home Journal, October, 1929, 107, 134.
and Its Members (Philadelphia: J B. Lippincott, 1923), 44.
introduction, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic
Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution
(New York: Harper, 1966), xxxii.
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Ball to AGS; February 20, 1903
to Mr. Ball; February 24, 1903 (original and copy)
Ball to AGS; March 25, 1903
to Bell Street; May 7, 1903 [BCS]
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Neglected, and Wayward Children being a Report: section 2.
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