8. An Educator for the Poor: Mary McDowell
Mary McDowell was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1854. After the American Civil War, Mary moved with her family to Chicago. When Mary was 13, in 1871, she witnessed the Great Chicago Fire that left thousands homeless, jobless, and penniless. With her father, Mary helped transport the homeless into temporary housing before the usual October cold set in. This event profoundly influenced Mary and led her to become dedicated to helping individuals that found their lives dictated by events that were beyond their control.
Influenced by her religious upbringing, Mary worked with a joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, advocating for he abolition of liquor because of its adverse impact upon children and the poor. She taught religious classes as well as classes on the evils of alcohol. Her work in this capacity caught the attention of Jane Addams, who invited Mary to join Hull-House as a teacher in the settlement houses’s newly organized kindergarten.
Mary’s work at the Hull-House kindergarten garnered notice for the University of Chicago. Seeking to start their own settlement house, they asked Mary McDowell to be in charge of the endeavor. On January 1, 1894, in the middle fo the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood that surrounded the enormous Union Stock Yards and meat-packing plants, the University Settlement House opened. As with Hull-House, Mary McDowell’s mission was to provide enrichment services for residents of the neighborhood.
Education was the primary goal of the Back of the Yards settlement. She hired teachers to instruct any neighborhood resident interested in civics, politics, or art. A kindergarten provided the youngest residents of the neighborhood with early exposure to formalized education while giving working women an option for their children instead of working in the factories. Vocational classes and collective civic engagement happened at Back of the Yards. Mary McDowell remained at the University Settlement for most of her life. She lobbied for the United States government to establish the Women’s Bureau specifically to study the living and working conditions of mothers and their children. She died in 1936 at 80 years old.