A Woman to Know: Lillian Wald

The task of organizing human happiness needs the active cooperation of man and woman: it cannot be relegated to one half of the world. — Lillian Wald

The task of organizing human happiness needs the active cooperation of man and woman: it cannot be relegated to one half of the world. — Lillian Wald

(image via Library of Congress)

In 1889, Lillian arrived in New York City to attend the New York Hospital School of Nursing. She moved into a tiny room in a bare-bones apartment on the Lower East Side, but despite her small quarters and rigorous studies, she quickly came to love the neighborhood. Soon, Lillian had immersed herself in the community, devoting herself to local activism and organization.

Once she bonded with the immigrant families in her neighborhood, Lillian organized her classmates to offer healthcare to tenement buildings on a sliding-scale discount. She called this group of generous women “the family,” and as the group grew, she’d come to rely on them for building her local support network.

In 1893, she founded Henry Street Settlement, a row of buildings offering free English classes, childcare and nursing aid to the locals. Lillian welcomed people of all races and backgrounds to take advantage of the Henry Street Settlement opportunities and demanded all offerings should be integrated. In 1909, she became a founding member of the NAACP, and she welcomed Black leaders to host their first public conference at the Henry Street Settlement.

Over the coming decades, the success of the Henry Street Settlement community set a template for social workers and progressive activists to replicate in other states and cities. Lillian called herself “a public health nurse,” popularizing the term and creating a new role for healthcare workers. She believed in the power of a kind bedside manner and taught her students the value of at-home healthcare.

Lillian’s letters to some of the women included in “the community” reveal deep romantic ties and a longing for acceptance. But while some historians theorize she may have been living as a queer woman, Lillian remained much too devoted to her work to develop lasting romantic attachments; as one biographer wrote, “She preferred personal independence, which allowed her to move quickly, travel freely and act boldly.”

By the 1930s, Lillian traveled the United States pioneering causes like universal suffrage, healthcare reform and pacifism, but she continued to expand upon Henry Street Settlement, adding a playground and theater for children’s art. She passed away suddenly in 1940 and was honored with a tribute service at Carnegie Hall. More than 2,000 attended, among them politicians, diplomats and hundreds of past and present residents of Henry Street Settlement.

Add to your library list: 

Read more:

Send your own recommendations for women to know! Reply to this newsletter with your lady and she could be featured in an upcoming edition.