Historical-Comparative Research Critique

Research Article:

Larson, K.C. (2001). The Saturday evening girls: a progressive era library club and the intellectual life of working class and immigrant girls in turn-of-the-century Boston. Library Quarterly, 71(2), 195-230.

Research Summary:

The Saturday Evening Girls’ Club [S.E.G.] was a library club established in 1899 in the crowded North End of Boston for working class women and poor immigrant women. Its founding members were three women: Edith Guerrier, a librarian, her lifelong partner and artist, Edith Brown, and an upper-class patron, Helen Osborne Storrow. Its beginnings were auspicious, quickly expanding to several library chapters with over 200 members who meet each week to discuss topics such as literature, art, politics, employment opportunities, and other similar subjects. They would publish the S.E.G. News and the Paul Revere Pottery Club, an acclaimed pottery club.

Kate Clifford Larson’s article describes how the club was created, and how it grew over the years, identifying key members as well as important moments in the club’s history. Held on Saturday night to accommodate the workweek, the Saturday Evening Girls’ Club was originally hosted by the North Bennett Street Industrial School [NBSIS], a charitable organization that provided assistance to immigrants in the area.

The mission and purpose of the club was to provide intellectual and social stimulation for oppressed and depressed women at a time when they had little or no rights, or opportunity afforded to them. Older members would provide guidance and mentoring to younger, new members. They promoted civic and involvement as well as furthering their education.

The resources that the clubs provided to its female members were invaluable. Larson attempts to emphasize the importance of library clubs such as the Saturday Evening Girls’ Club in the women’s suffrage movement and social movements in general history.

The article features selections from her historical research from her then-book in progress “The Saturday Evening Girls: Training for the Head, Heart, and Hand in Turn-of-the-Century Boston,” as well excerpts from her Master’s thesis “The Saturday Evening Girls: A Social Experiment in Class Bridging and Cross Cultural Female Dominion Building in Turn-of-the-Century Boston.”

 

 

 

 

In-depth Critique:

Research Problem

Larson attempts to “examine the role clubs and social reform organizations played in advancing educational and economic agendas” as well as provide an in-depth look at the lives of immigrant and working-class women in the United States in the early to mid-1900s.

Literature Review

 

Larson uses rare primary documents and running records including copies of the S.E.G. News, the S.E.G. news supplement Cherry Tree Edition, oral histories with surviving S.E.G. members taken in the 1970s, and interviews with descendants, relatives, and friends of S.E.G. members in the 1990s. School documents, Boston Public Library documents, local news articles, U.S. Census reports, NBSIS Records, letters and correspondence written between club members and librarians, and S.E.G. meeting minutes are some of the other literature referenced by Larson in her piece. Secondary sources include books about the historical time, working women, literacy and culture at the time, and the Paul Revere Pottery Club. Literature referenced is dated from 1873 to 1997.

Theoretical Framework

 

Larson does not build on a pre-existing well-known theoretical framework concerning library clubs or related-organizations. As Larson states, the plight of immigrant women in urban communities was not well-documented until the late 1990s. Historians wrote little about their involvement in clubs and organizations, primarily due to a lack of archival material reflecting the voice or experience of women from lower classes.

 

Research Design/Instrument Design

 

In the absence of direct study or primary interviews, historiography (historical research or gathering/analyzing historical evidence) was appropriate. The research problem was to study the history of the Saturday Night Girls’ Club and how female-centered organizations for working class and immigrant women like it affected social movements. Archives would be and were the main source of information and supporting evidence.

 

Data Gathering

 

According to Neuman, historical-comparative research allows us to identify long-term trends across societies or time. More specifically, H-C research lets us understand why “an entire society operates in particular ways by revealing processes that operate over long periods and across societies” (Neuman 465). One important dimension of H-C research is data.

H-C research evidence tends to be “limited and indirect” (Neuman 473). The data provided is for one society (working class and immigrant girls/women in the Boston-area) and one time period (early to mid-1900s). Larson uses both qualitative data (observations, documents, open-ended interviews, etc.) and quantitative data (survey data from that time period, economic and population statistics). Larson relied on surviving data from the past.

 

Data Analysis

 

Larson worked with the data that exists and was preserved to this day including newspaper articles and surveys. She interprets the data somewhat but does not question or provide evidence to its authenticity. She writes that the materials she examined depicted a “remarkably consistent view of the important role that intellectual stimulation and opportunity played in the lives of these young women and girls” but could it have been too consistent?

The S.E.G. published the S.E.G. News so it may not have been exactly biased or thorough. But Larson does not question what was printed or who the intended audience was for it. No doubt that the library clubs served as an “important venue for intellectual, social, professional, and economic advancement” but there were also other clubs and programs for working to middle-class women that could have propelled social change. Statistics were limited to small samplings or no more than around twenty percentages of groups.

Larson does not go into depth of the social context at the time; specifically the plight of the immigrant women, why they came to the United States, their customs, or backgrounds (i.e. their prior schooling or work skills). Human agency is important. Larson goes into depth about the history of the S.E.G. and its founders, and related movements but does not identify specific economic (their circumstances driving them), or demographics. She uses the general terms of girls and women without ages. She offers a sample of young women and their education level, but not the percentage of S.E.G. members who attained any type of degrees after joining.

 

Conclusions

 

She states that the S.E.G. and other library clubs allowed working class and immigrant women to emerge from the shadows of their domestic lives, to challenge themselves intellectually and economically, and pursue better lives for themselves and women in general.

S.E.G. members “wanted more, above and beyond expectations of their gender, class, and ethnic groups.” Ahead of their time in terms of liberalism, the S.E.G. and related organizations “became part of a modern movement toward greater options for women–educationally, politically, and economically” in spite of their circumstances or patriarchy prevalent at the time.

Larson attempts to explore and prove her research via secondary sources and documents. Given the historical timeframe, personal experience and interviews are not possible.

Critique Conclusions:

 

Larson’s research appears to be in-depth and thorough, primarily relying on archival materials rather than secondary sources. Her focus remains on the Saturday Evening Girls’ Club, particularly the history of its beginning. The article does not go much into depth about other library cards, or small moments or bigger movements led by S.E.G. members. The human agency is not prevalent enough within the writings.

But the article is a stepping point for her Master’s thesis and eventual book on the subject, both of which likely included more information. No doubt an individual or a strong group can lead change but the causal association or connection between variables (specifically S.E.G. and women gaining more rights and success) is not solidified. The members could have still become educated or raised within the class ranks for other reasons.

Larson’s interpretation may be viewed as solid. Her research was thorough. The S.E.G. club and related organizations helped immigrant and working-class women get out of the house (some sneaking out due to male disapproval)., develop comraderies, and educate themselves about important topics. But to what degree did this affect their overall lives and futures by extension? Yet I did not feel her associations were detailed enough to identify direct links between factors. It feels like there are missing factors that can be attributed to the changes.

References

Neuman, W. L. (2003). Social research methods/Qualitative and quantitative methods (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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