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DATE: April 4, 2003

History of women in Atlanta has much to teach about other American cities, according to new book by UM-Dearborn historian Georgina Hickey

DEARBORN---"Women have more to tell us about the history of cities than we often realize," according to the University of Michigan-Dearborn historian Georgina Hickey.


Hickey, assistant professor of history at UM-Dearborn, is the author of "Hope and Danger in the New South City: Working-Class Women and Urban Development in Atlanta, 1890-1940" published in February by the University of Georgia Press.

"By the end of the 19th century, women not only fulfilled most of the domestic and reproductive tasks of urban life, but they increasingly shaped the cities in which they lived," Hickey said.

While her book focuses on the history of Atlanta, there are many parallels with other American cities that went through similar periods of chaotic economic growth at the beginning of the 20th century.

"The growth brought with it disorder, most notably in the form of new populations that competed for housing, jobs and city services," she said. "The irony of this process was that city officials, business leaders and established urban residents had a distinct distaste for disorder, yet their boosterism and priorities had invited it."

Until that time, class, racial and ethnic boundaries had kept a rough type of order in American cities, Hickey said. "And those who had already made their way up the ladder, especially if it were only a rung or two, resented the intrusion of newcomers whether they were southern blacks flooding into Milwaukee or Polish immigrants overwhelming Chicago's stockyards."

In the same period, women were also seen as newcomers in cities, not because they were just arriving, although many of them were, but because women began to use cities in new ways, according to Hickey. Both black and white women "proved themselves remarkably willing to brave the city streets, streetcars, theaters and dance halls."

Upper-class women were able to exercise influence on urban development long before women had won the right to vote, Hickey said, and suburbs, parks and shopping districts reflected their involvement. Meanwhile, urbanized middle-class women created a network of "female spaces" where they could safely travel and work in some professions.

Working-class women also developed strong communities, usually constrained by race, class and ethnicity, but also revealing new social roles and relationships. "From them, working-class women pioneered new forms of urban leisure, sexual standards, family patterns and activism," Hickey said. "Working-class women became symbols of public order and disorder, not just for issues relating strictly to women or even gender but for far more than that. Ultimately, crusades to protect innocent and virtuous women and those designed to protect the city from immoral and dangerous women resulted in circumscribed social boundaries along class, racial and gender lines for all of Atlanta's residents."

Using period newspapers, municipal documents, government investigations, organizational records, oral histories, and photographic evidence, Hickey examined the experience of both black and white working-class women as sources of labor, community members, activists, pleasure seekers, consumers of social services, and as potent symbols in debates over the meaning of urban growth.

She studied working-class women's roles in major events of the era --including a race riot, a tuberculosis scare, a sensationalized murder trial, and the founding of the first citywide charity organization. Her book devotes chapters to such topics as work, leisure, social welfare, public health, and politics and law.

"While the specifics of the story are rooted in the history of one city and region, this tale is not unique to Atlanta or even to the South," Hickey said. "There are striking parallels among cities just coming to terms with the impact of industrialization. Cities struggled to provide adequate services for burgeoning populations, wrestling with a host of political, economic and social upheavals when established forms of moral and social order were threatened."

Examining the role of women in that process can be very instructive, according to Hickey. "For a brief moment, the washerwomen, cooks, secretaries, store clerks, box makers, bag folders, poor mothers, dance hall girls and prostitutes functioned as the ideological territory for the contested work of city building."




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