The Wonder Woman of working women


Social work pioneer Hilda Worthington Smith was, among many things, the director of the Summer School for Women Workers at Bryn Mawr College. The school was the subject of the documentary by Rita Heller titiled The Women of Summer. You can view the film at: https://archive.org/details/thewomenofsummer. After the trustees of Bryn Mawr were pressured to ditch the “radical” summer school, Smith relocated the program to her family compound in West Park and continued to run it during the summers as the Hudson Shore Labor School.

While the rest of the country will be celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 2020, New York is ahead of the national curve as usual. This state gave women the vote in 1917, so this year is our opportunity to remind people of the power of the ballot and the history of the suffrage struggle.

The Klyne Esopus Museum is already on that bandwagon, foreshadowing its summer exhibition with an April talk by Evan Pritchard about indigenous women of the Hudson Valley. And this past Sunday, “Celebrating the Exceptional Women of Esopus” opened to the public at the Ulster Park museum.

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Two of the three famous female Esopians spotlighted in the new exhibit are very well-known indeed: liberated slave/abolitionist/suffragist/orator Sojourner Truth and Frances Xavier Cabrini, founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the first (naturalized) American citizen to be canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. But the third is a distinguished 20th-century educator whose name seems to be in danger of being lost to the tides of history. Perhaps this exhibition will help to exhume Hilda Worthington Smith’s name from undeserved obscurity.

Part of the problem, in trying to find out more about this fascinating woman, is that her list of titles and government agency affiliations during the New Deal quickly begins to read like a dusty catalogue of now-defunct bureaucracies:

  • first director of the Affiliated Schools for Workers (later known as the American Labor Education Service)
  • specialist in Workers’ Education for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration
  • director of the Workers’ Service Program for the Works Progress Administration (WPA)
  • consultant in labor education to the Roosevelt administration
  • chief of the Project Services Section of the federal Public Housing Authority
  • chair of the National Committee for the Extension of Labor Education
  • member of the New York State Adult Education Bureau
  • consultant for the Connecticut State Commission for Services to Elderly Persons
  • consultant for the Training Division of the Community Action Program of the Office of Economic Opportunity

Eyes glazing over yet? And that’s just the posts that Smith held later in her long life (1888-1984).

Born in New York City to a nouveau-riche family (her father was a successful inventor), Hilda Worthington Smith (known to all as Jane) attended Bryn Mawr, surrounded by girls from “old money” backgrounds. From 1919 to 1921 she was first Acting Dean and then Dean of Bryn Mawr College, directing academic advising and health services as well as supervising classes for black service workers at the college. At some point she decided to put her fortune and her excellent education to practical use by running a summer training program in the liberal arts for disadvantaged girls: factory and millworkers, primarily, from all over the US, both urban and rural, and of varied ethnicities. That experiment, the Bryn Mawr Summer Institute for Women Workers in Industry, was established in 1921 and flourished on that campus until 1938, bringing Smith into the circle of Eleanor Roosevelt and inspiring copycat programs elsewhere in America and around the globe.

Economic theory and activist practice were prominent components of the summer students’ education, and beginning with the Sacco & Vanzetti trials, Smith’s protégés soon became embroiled in Depression-era labor disputes and political protests. They agitated for better working conditions for service workers – mostly people of color – on the campus itself. But as Stalin rose to power in Russia, the very phrase “workers’ education” that encapsulated Jane’s philosophy became synonymous in the public mind with the Communist Party. Thus Bryn Mawr trustees came under pressure from wealthy alumni and philanthropists to ditch the “radical” summer school.

So Smith relocated the program to her family compound in West Park and continued to run it during the summers as the Hudson Shore Labor School. She was also recruited by the First Lady to head up the Camp She-She-She program, a WPA initiative to involve women in outdoor national service analogous to the all-male Civilian Conservation Corps. That effort quickly sputtered out, but Smith went on to incorporate her area of expertise into federal government programs at many levels. Vice president Hubert H. Humphrey was among the alumni of a work program for unemployed teachers that she ran under FDR.

Perhaps most importantly, many of the poor women who attended Smith’s summer programs went back to their own communities, became labor organizers and social workers and founded their own schools, including one in the Philippines. It’s a model of women empowering women reflected today in the international microlending movement. Jane was certainly ahead of her time, and her story ought to be part of the history curricula in Hudson Valley schools along with those of other illustrious local women.

Intrigued? Find out more by visiting the Klyne Esopus Museum, located at 746 Broadway (Route 9W) in Ulster Park. “Celebrating the Exceptional Women of Esopus” will be on view through Columbus Day weekend, open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. For more information, visit www.klyneesopusmuseum.us or www.facebook.com/klyneesopushistory.

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