Published by H-Women@h-net.msu.edu (July, 2000)

Kathleen Waters Sander. The Business of Charity: The Woman's Exchange Movement, 1832-1900. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998. xi + 165 pp.; Illustrations, annotations, appendices, index. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-252-02401-x; $16.95 (paper), ISBN 0-252-06703-7.

Reviewed for H-WOMEN by Randolph Hollingsworth , Kentucky Virtual University -- on leave from History and Women's Studies, Lexington Community College

A History of White Women's "Exchange"

Kathleen Waters Sander portrays "one of the oldest continuously operating, voluntary movements in the United States" (p. 3) in The Business of Charity: The Woman's Exchange Movement, 1832-1900. Sander has developed this monograph from her 1994 dissertation on the subject with the help of a cast of stars in women's history and American Studies. Her thank-you list includes Hasia Diner (her advisor), Robyn Muncy, Jo Paoletti, Anne Firor Scott, and Mari Jo Buhle.[1] Scott and Buhle provided editorial support for developing the manuscript into a book for the Women in American History series.

Sander's book describes how some nineteenth century urban white women stepped outside the restrictive boundaries of the domestic ideal to become empowered psychically and economically in a patriarchal world. The scope of Sander's research traverses the nineteenth century and relies on Woman's Exchange directories, minutes, and annual reports. Other primary sources are also cited: contemporary newspaper articles, catalogs, and published histories. This in-depth look at the Women's Exchange movement from its beginnings in 1832 to 1890 attempts to show how needy women of both the working and middle classes could be part of an elite women's benevolent organization.

The book is separated into three parts. Part I focuses on the original founders' goal that genteel poor women be able to support themselves through the sale of fancy needlework. It also describes the Philadelphia "founding mothers'" activities. Part II examines the shifts in the exchanges' original goals and the expansion of the movement. By the 1870s the market in decorative arts began to change, and the leadership of the exchanges (along with other types of voluntary associations) used strategies quite different from the antebellum depositories. Part III depicts the commercial side of the Woman's Exchange movement and develops Sander's thesis regarding a "dual personality" of this movement. The women of means who managed the cooperatives gained in personal and professional development. At the same time, the Exchange's activities "mirrored" (p. 7) the retailing world and functioned in the hopes of providing a "more humanistic countermovement to the industrial workplace" (p. 87), parallel to the mainstream commercial sector of the U.S. economy.

Unfortunately, Sander leaves the contextual background of voluntary associations, women's rights, and labor organization unwritten. For example, there is no clear reason why the Philadelphia pioneers in the Women's Exchange movement petitioned the secretary of war about the exploitation of women workers (p. 15). The secretary's response -- if ever given -- is not described in the text. This chronicle of the Women's Exchange movement would have benefited from a description of other local, state, or federal level activities taking place at the same time.

Though Sander assures the reader that there were other exchanges, the reader only gets details on a few. Two decades after the Philadelphia Ladies' Depository gets going, the Proudfit women establish a New Brunswick Exchange. With the 1876 Centennial Exhibition as a catalyst, the movement picks up pace in the 1880s. By the 1890s this producers' cooperative initiative spreads to 70 cities and includes thousands of women. In their effort to maintain a sense of respectability and avoid direct wage labor, the needleworkers remained anonymous; as leaders in women's voluntary movements, the exchange operators gain training experience in management and business. According to Sander, these city women expressed the nineteenth century ideal of self-help; and, more importantly, the Women's Exchanges "blurred the lines between the commercial and voluntary sectors and allowed the women involved to participate freely in business activities that otherwise would have been limited" (p. 3).

Thus this monograph is useful for student and faculty researchers alike. Sander links the history of an elite white women's voluntary association to the history of consumerism and retailing. This hybrid organization deserves scholarly analysis, and the history of lady managers bears scrutiny in the North as well as in the South.[2]

The gaps in this monograph's narrative are minor in comparison to my one big question. Why does Sander ignore the entrepreneurial and economic roles of women of color and -- the vast majority of adult women in the nineteenth century -- farmers? With such a stellar support group of scholars listed in her acknowledgements section, all of whom are intensely devoted to the recently heightened conversations regarding race and class in the study of women's history,[3] why does Sander's work not even acknowledge in her notes the existence of studies on nineteenth century women workers, entrepreneurs, and other voluntary associations? Where is Suzanne Lebsock or Jacquelyn Jones, two nineteenth-century-women's historians whose books were already well received as Sander rewrote her dissertation?[4] Angel Kwolek-Folland's history of American women and business came out the same year as Sander's and her opening chapter reaches back to 1550 to describe the roots of American women's economies and business endeavors.[5]

This is a longwinded gripe asking for more collaboration for those of us working in the same subject fields. With the advent of the Internet, and in particular the wonderfully anarchic characteristics of a medium of communication like the H-Women listserv, why do scholars hesitate to talk openly about their current research efforts? Granted, any contribution to an academic listserv can provoke sparks (miniature bits of flaming that ignite episodes of gnashing of teeth and hollering at the computer screen).

However, the benefits of an extended conversation by people of differing backgrounds and life experiences helps broaden the scope of our work. As we settle comfortably into institutionalized settings where a doorway unabashedly announces "Women's Studies" or formerly male-dominated history Ph.D. committees include more than one woman faculty mentor, women scholars must continue to reach out and incorporate difference in research and teaching.


[1]. Mari Jo Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920. The Working Class in American History Series (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981); Hasia R. Diner, In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915-1935 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977); Diner, Erin's Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983); Diner, A Time for Gathering: The Second Migration, 1820-1880(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); Robyn Muncy, Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890-1935 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, c1991); Jo. B. Paoletti, Dress Rehearsal, A History of Children's Fashions in America (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1988); Anne Firor Scott, The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Scott, Making the Invisible Woman Visible (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984); Scott, Natural Allies: Women's Associations in American History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993, c1992).

[2]. A classic study of white lady managers in the South is Catherine Clinton's Plantation Mistress (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982 ). A useful series of essays that could have provided Sander with her needed contextual information is Lady Bountiful Revisited: women, Philanthropy, and Power, edited by Kathleen D. McCarthy (New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1990). For a pathbreaking book in the American history of gender and business, see Angel Kwolek-Folland, Engendering Business: Men and Women in the Corporate Office, 1870-1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

[3]. Hasia Diner's early influence on the study of gender and ethnicity in immigration history inspired me in the early 1980s to keep questioning the unspoken "norms" of whiteness and maleness in my immigration history course in graduate school. Jo B. Paoletti, an instructor in historical costume at University of Maryland College Park, has started the Intercultural Learning Center, an online environment for cross-cultural communication and is currently teaching a course called "Diversity in American Culture."

[4]. Suzanne Lebsock, The Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860 (New York: Norton, 1984); and Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (New York: Vintage Books, 1995). See also Teresa Amott and Julie Matthaei, Race, Gender, and Work: A Multicultural Economic History of Women in the United States (Boston, Mass.: South End Press, 1991); Betty Wood, Women's Work, Men's Work: The Informal Slave Economies of Low Country Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995); Tera W. Hunter, To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors after the Civil War_(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997); and Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage To Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[5] Angel Kwolek-Folland, Incorporating Women: A History of Women and Business in the United States, History of Women and Business in the United States Series (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998).

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