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Deforming the neighbors : motherhood, charity, and disability in social settlement literature, 1880-1930

  • Author(s): Starnaman, Sabrina
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation investigates how motherhood and charity are complicit producers of disabled figures in Progressive Era (1880-1930) social settlement literature: including non-fiction texts, reform fiction, and autobiographically inspired stories. Motherhood, as maternal rhetoric, and charity, as an idea and act, are especially pertinent to depictions of disability in settlement literature. Disabled figures are portrayed as stricken, impoverished, and childlike entities in need of maternal care that social settlements and settlement workers, or charitable institutions and charity workers provide. I establish the theoretical basis of this examination using intersectionality theory, benevolent maternalism, deformance, and stigma to analyze settlement literature. I explore how fiction that centers on social settlement workers depict maternal heteronormative female protagonists who are committed to a paradigm of charity, consistent with benevolent maternalism and, where applicable, are proponents of eugenic thought and technologies. These protagonists deform the objects of their benevolence. Disabled characters in these books are never central; they characters serve as objects of attention for the fit, American social worker. The worker becomes a symbol of Progressive ideology, representing conventional ideas of motherhood and charity, which in turn deform and construct the disabled characters in the first place. Other texts, written by authors with intimate knowledge of the communities in which settlements are established, create texts that comment on the work of the settlement. The middle class reader witnesses deforming acts as they encounter the relationships that arise in these cross-class, multi-ethnic spaces. However, on occasion, settlement literature creates empowered, independent characters with impairments or non-normative identities. These agents contest the traditional tropes of motherhood and charity and these texts overturn the established literary expectations about disability. Texts by Jane Addams and Alice Dunbar-Nelson's resist and nullify this deforming process. These atypical representations of social settlement literature avoid or reverse the deforming forces of charity and maternalist/ paternalist rhetoric by performing prenormalization, an act that does not deform, but attempts to return the character and reader to a time before the hegemony of normalcy. Settlement literature is a rich, relatively underexplored set of texts, and scholars should embrace the breadth of written works that fall into this collection. For instance, there is a rich trove of newspaper and magazine articles about the 1915 case of baby Bollinger who was left to die because he had physical disabilities. In this case, settlement directors were solicited as national experts on disability, education, and social practice. Examination of the social creation of disability is rife in these fictional and non-fiction texts. Clearly, the ubiquitous examples of motherhood and charity in these texts are frequent complicit producers of disability. This is only part of the story though. Examples of fierce resistance to the deforming power of motherhood and disability are evident as well. Examinations of progressive reform initiatives will benefit from the depictions and descriptions in settlement literature. These texts transmit experience and knowledge about the unique powers of maternal rhetoric, benevolent maternalism, charitable efforts, and deformance, but they also transmit powerful messages about resistance and agency that are just as important

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