Balancing the Vocational Divide:

Balancing the Vocational Divide:
Anna Garlin Spencer on Women, Work, and Family
by Tanya C. Sikes
June, 1995


I stumbled into a relationship with Anna Garlin Spencer by whimsically pulling her name out of the Compendium of Resources published by the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society when I needed a topic for a final paper in a course entitled “Roots of Feminism” at Harvard University. I quickly became fascinated by Spencer’s efforts in the area of balancing work and family. The title of this paper, “Vocational Divide,” comes from a chapter in Spencer’s book, Woman’s Share in Social Culture.

The earthy, sensitive way in which Spencer handled the issues of women, work, and family fostered in me a great admiration for those who make their stand on the middle ground. Spencer chose to follow neither the radical nor the conservative paths open to her at the turn of the 20th century; instead, she sought balance. She is an early role model for women who strive to have both a progressive, fulfilling career and a supportive, nurturing family.

Many thanks to Dorothy May Emerson, the founder and director of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society, for her support and advice while I was developing this paper. Thanks also to the board of the UUWHS for helping to fund this project and waiting patiently for its completion. Much appreciation to Jone Johnson, who is currently working on a book about Spencer and who did the great service of reading and commenting on my endeavor. Others who were invaluable to this project are Susan Snyder, Norman and Marilyn Bellemore, Karen Townsend, and my wonderfully supportive husband, I. Fabrizio Passanisi.

Annotated Time Line

1851 April 15 AGS born, the youngest of four, in Attleboro MA to Francis Warren Garlin and Nancy Mason Carpenter Garlin. Early years spent in Providence RI.

1868 At age 17, AGS joins Women’s Suffrage Movement of Providence.

1869-71 AGS does private college tutoring in Providence schools.

1869-1886 AGS writes for Providence Daily Journal.

1870 Francis Warren Garlin (father) dies. AGS begins speaking In public.

1875 Bell Street Chapel built for religious liberals by James Eddy, prominent art dealer and metal smith.

AGS leaves Union Church (Congregational) over doctrinal issues and joins Providence Free Religious Society.

1876-1878 AGS preaches at Progressive Friends, Chester PA; Free Religious Society, Providence RI; Parker Memorial, Boston MA

1878, May AGS speaks at Free Religious Association annual meeting; William Henry Spencer is also on the program.

Aug. 15 AGS marries Spencer, a Unitarian minister and, for the next decade, assists him in churches in Haverhill and Florence MA and Troy NY.

1879 Fletcher Carpenter Spencer (son) is born and dies. AGS’s diary shows her in tremendous pain and grief over the loss.

1884 Lucy Spencer (daughter) born.

1889 Spencer family moves to Waupaca WI, where WHS becomes partner in family business, a loan collection agency.

James Eddy dies in Providence. AGS asked by Eddy family to return to Providence to assist trustees of James Eddy. She also becomes vice president of Providence Women’s Suffrage Association and member of other organizations.

1890 AGS helps found American Purity Alliance, renamed the American Social Hygiene Association, of which AGS becomes Chair of Family Relations.

1891 By unanimous vote, AGS ordained by Bell Street Chapel and becomes first woman minister in RI and first minister to preach from Chapel pulpit.

1891-1897 AGS is member of Board of State Home and School for Dependent Children.

1891-1902 AGS both pastor and president of Bell Street Chapel Society.

1893 WHS becomes minister of Fourth Unitarian Church, Providence, living at 387 Broadway with AGS. AGS vice president of Providence Society for Organizing
Charity; remains on board of directors until 1895. Also serves as chair of International Congress of Charities, Correction, and Philanthropy at World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Attends FRA Convention, Unitarian Convention, and World Parliament of Religions.

1894 AGS is vice president of Free Kindergarten Association.

1898 AGS attends first class of New York School of Philanthropy.

1899-1901 AGS member of Providence chapter of Women’s Christian Temperance Movement (WCTU) along with Miss Sarah M Carpenter (aunt).

1901 Nancy Mason Carpenter Garlin (mother) dies. AGS elected to four-year term on FRA board of directors.

1902 AGS takes leave from Bell Street Chapel, moves to New York City with daughter Lucy, who is starting a theater career. Resignation given to Chapel in March, but asked to remain on leave of absence.

1903 AGS ceases all official connection with Bell Street Chapel. Lectures for Ethical Society of New York and preaches in Unitarian pulpits.

1903-1907 AGS is associate director of New York School of Philanthropy and lectures there until 1912.

1904-1912 AGS is associate director of New York Society for Ethical Culture. Leaves after differences arise with director Felix Adler.

1907 Sarah Martin Carpenter (aunt) dies. Active in many of same organizations and may have been great influence on AGS.

1908-1911 AGS is special lecturer on Social Service at University of Wisconsin.

1908 AGS begins series of magazine articles in Journal of Sociology, Popular Science Monthly, and others.

1910-1911 AGS is director of Institute of Municipal and Social Services.

1913-1918 AGS is Professor Sociology and Ethics at Meadville Theological School, Meadville PA.

1918 AGS is lecturer at University of Chicago.

1920-1931 AGS is special lecturer in social science at Columbia University and helps develop its consultation center.

1923 William Henry Spencer dies after ten years of invalidism.

1931 Anna Garlin Spencer dies of heart attack or stroke while attending a dinner of the League of Nations Association.


Born in the midst of Victorian feminism, Anna Garlin Spencer struggled to define women and family in the light of a newly industrialized society. As a contemporary and friend of Lucy Stone, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Susan 13. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott, Spencer wrote about women’s suffrage, social hygiene, spirituality, and democracy. As an activist in the National Woman Suffrage Association, Free Religious Association (FRA), and Women’s Peace Party, her work centered on careers, women, and family relations. As a minister, educator, writer, wife, and mother involved in several women’s rights organizations, Spencer endeavored to balance her career and her family. She is what Josephine Donovan in her book, Feminist Theory, describes as a “social reform feminist who wished to bring homelike nurturing into public life.”1

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Spencer found she could serve women’s interests best within an institutional framework. She did not remove herself from society in order to make a cultural statement; rather, she founded and participated in many organizations. She was a natural activist who urged the development of the Providence Free Kindergarten Society, the Providence Organization for Charity, and the New York School of Philanthropy while quietly remaining in the shadows of these organizations. Her knack for gracefully and competently filling the role of vice president, associate director, or member of the board allowed her to shape associations from inside without the public attention often faced by presidents and directors.

As a group builder, speaker, and writer, she was in great demand. The Providence Free Religious Society declined to accept her wish to withdraw her membership (“we consider your name in our books of more value than most of its members”), moving to make her an honorary member while she was away.2 She was asked several times to serve on the national board of the Free Religious Association and was solicited by the West London Ethical Society in England for her written work.3 Her skills in working with people through practical steps, without separating herself from the mainstream of culture, may be partially to blame for the loss of her history. Many of the women who are remembered drastically removed themselves from institutions and society and became radicals on the margin. How much more difficult it is to work within the conventions of society to instigate change! The balancing act of being a radical activist and a cooperative team member who values and is valued by others is truly a magic trick.

A Brief Spiritual Visit in Providence

The strength Spencer derived from her understanding of the holy intertwined itself in all her subsequent work with women and families. Spencer began her independent spiritual quest early. A letter dated July 11, 1876, states that Union Church (Congregational) “voted that—for change in their religious beliefs and at their request that—they [Anna Carpenter Garlin and Lucy Hale Garlin] may no longer be considered as in covenant relation with this church.”4 Although the sisters’ names were stricken from the rolls, they were invited to return if their beliefs changed. About this time, Anna C. Garlin began preaching in Pennsylvania, Providence, and Boston.5

She may have met William Spencer when both were speakers at the annual meeting of the Free Religious Association, and both were present at the home of Lucy Stone in Haverhill, Massachusetts, on one occasion. Stone expressed surprise that this brief visit may have led to their wedding on August 15, 1878,6 and surprise was the general reaction of those receiving wedding invitations.

Spencer was an agnostic Unitarian minister, 11 years Anna’s senior. He was already holding a post in Haverhill, Massachusetts, where she joined him as an associate minister more than as a preacher’s wife.7 She shared two more pastorates with him before his agnostic views prevented his continuing in the ministry.

Anna Garlin Spencer received her first solo post almost by accident. While she and her family were living in Waupaca, Wisconsin, where William Spencer was a partner in the family loan and collection agency,8 she was asked by the Eddy family to return to Providence RI to work on the memoirs and history of James Eddy. Eddy was a prominent art dealer and metal smith who had built the Bell Street Chapel in 1875 to provide a space for liberal religion in Providence. Although Spencer intended to return only for a short time to write Eddy’s memoirs, she remained for twelve years and became the first ordained female minister in Rhode Island.9 Because of a disagreement between Eddy and the Providence Free Religious Society over the use of the word “God,” all of Spencer’s predecessors had been asked to hold their meetings in the fellowship hail. She was the first minister to preach in the sanctuary.

In 1902, signs of strain and overwork began to manifest themselves. While in New York, Spencer wrote to the Bell Street Society asking not to be reelected president of the society because, “I expected at the conclusion of our first ten years to resign the presidency to a member of the society. … On general principle it is not best that the minister of the society should act as its president.”1° In March of the same year, Spencer tendered her resignation to the Bell Street Chapel Society, which refused to let her go, placing her instead on a one-year sabbatical. In February, 1903, answering a letter from the secretary of the Bell Street Chapel Society, she again explained her reasons for resigning:

I made no promises to you last Spring as to what I might think wise to do in March of this year, you will remember. Hence I have held myself free to decide all the grave concerns involved on their merits. I must now renew my resignation of last year and make it final. I have given as many years of my life’s service to the work of Bell St. Chapel as I feel I ought to do. No other field can ever have just that element of personal attachment which results from union of leader and people from the inception of a movement. But I have been called for some time past, notably during the last three years, to other forms of social and religious leadership which offer a wider if not dearer field, and which I feel that now I ought to accept. Moreover I have always believed that an independent Society or Church (which must of necessity depend so exclusively upon the character and personality of its leader) should change leaders once in a while In order to have a variety of gifts placed at its service.11

This marked the end of Spencer’s full-time ministerial work, although she continued to preach on occasion. Yet in all her work it is impossible to escape the spiritual essence of her commitment to democracy, justice, and personal development.

Democratic Families and Working Women

The industrial revolution exacerbated the struggle women felt in their changing roles. The traditional Victorian view of women held that they were frail house-bound creatures not fit for work outside the home. A vocational divide increasingly separated the time and talents of women as the Victorian establishment gave way. Ambition, talent, and luck could land a woman in a career until she married. After marriage, a woman often found herself with two careers: one as housewife and primary caregiver to children and another as a wage-earning career woman. After marriage, a woman must divide her time between family and work or, more often, quit working altogether. Balancing work and family is a crucial issue, yet so far it has been women who must walk this tightrope.

To clarify Anna Garlin Spencer’s view on “the vocational divide,” it is helpful to compare her book, Woman’s Share in Social Culture , with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Women and Economics. Spencer grappled with the changing roles of men and women. She saw modern industry and political evolution changing the way in which both genders viewed work and family. “The business of being a woman is precisely like the business of being a man; namely development of the highest and finest and noblest personality possible.”12

Charlotte Perkins Gilman found the turn-of-the-century expectation concerning women’s responsibilities toward housework and children impossible to accept. Her tale, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” is a frightening story which fictitiously retells her personal experience of being denied intellectual stimulus when forced to take a rest cure because she was unable or unwilling to care for her house and child.13 The real cure for Gilman was returning to the lecture circuit and pursuing her many activist goals.

In her book, Women and Economics, Gilman observed that the family unit is no longer the center of human life; rather it is only part of the social and educational relationships that a child needs. She pointed to the “incessant friction of the relations … restlessness of the young, [and] the flat treason of deserting parents”14 as reasons why private home life can be harmful to both children and adults. Private homes, she wrote, “are not suited to develop the qualities now needed in human beings.”15 The sociologist in Gilman led her to suggest that her readers refrain from moral condemnation of the family unit and focus their attention on the scientific evolution and recreation of family and society.

In order to alter women’s plight as economic dependents, Gilman sought “to break up that relic of the patriarchal age, the family as an economic unit.”16 Later in her career, she demystified the private world of the “home,” describing it as a place ruled by ignorance, overloaded with work, and emotionally and intellectually draining enough to retard any growth or social evolution of the housewife.17 She also launched an attack on “Motherhood,” pronouncing “Mother” to be a lousy cook, overbearing in manner, and a poor nurturer both intellectually and morally. “Mother” was like this because her own maturation possibilities were stunted by a family system that did not allow women an opportunity to develop individually.18

Anna Garlin Spencer expounded on this theme in an amusing anecdote of how a husband (doctor) and wife (music teacher) handled their careers after marriage. Surprisingly enough, the wife continued to teach after their marriage. When her husband needed to relocate to increase his practice, however, she was to quit teaching and “be taken care of’ by her husband. Because she was no longer teaching and bringing in the extra income to pay for hired help, she took over the housework. Much to her distress, the “present occupations (of the house) bore a strong resemblance to “work.” Obviously, though, this could not be real labor since she was now being “taken care of’ for the first time in her married life. 19

Although housewifery was not considered gainful employment, many families in both the 19th and 20th centuries would find it exceedingly hard to survive without the tireless work of the wife. Gilman suggested radical changes in domestic arrangements to correct the economic dependence and retarded growth of women. Her idea was to professionalize domestic work by training apt people for the duties of child rearing, cooking, and cleaning. This would be a collective effort, an integration of public and private life that would end enormous waste in time and resources. With this collective “housewife,” a woman would no longer work a wageless 24-hour day. This new arrangement would allow women and men to choose careers that suited them rather than those forced on them by gender.20

Spencer’s research in Woman’s Share showed that many poor and working class women did take jobs for four or five years before marriage, but their tasks were similar to the ones performed in the home with little chance of learning a marketable skill or mobility to a better paid occupation. She quoted statistics showing that on 20-30% of women aged 10-60 were involved in gainful employment, receiving wages for work, while 80-85% of men were gainfully employed. Her findings also showed that women were only employed in the “lowest and meanest” occupations.21 Spencer aptly called the jobs available to women “labor leavings.”22 These jobs were poorly paid and often dangerous. Married women, widows, deserted wives, and middle-aged self-supporting women worked as weavers, dyers, and food preparers. Untrained and desperate, they were easily exploited by an industrial society.

Spencer may have agreed with Gilman that the economic dependency of women often wrongly channeled their energy, aborted human growth, and generally prevented creative and transcending work; however, Spencer did not believe that the problem of split demands of family and home, economic worth, and equality could be solved solely through better economic standing. Conditions at that time afforded neither economic independence nor a steady job for most women. Spencer sensed that in order to change the working and home conditions of women, a higher value had to be placed on both women and family.23

Spencer agreed with Gilman that modern industry and democracy offered new opportunities to women. However, while Gilman focused her energies on the issues of economic and social evolution facing women, Spencer injected her work with a liberal spirituality and an earthy understanding of human nature and relationships. An article written for the Ladies’ Home Journal shows Spencer’s first-hand knowledge of the struggles within the family. In “What Makes a Home,” she candidly looked at courting and marriage, giving practical advice on how to develop a democratic family partnership. “Falling in love” is a springboard for many other questions and realizations that should take place before marriage. Spencer realized “that in a real partnership one cannot have all the sacrificial service and the other be content with giving it.”24 A commitment in fairness and balance of duties is necessary. She also asked the engaged couple to look closely at family background, racially, religiously, nationally, and mentally. She offered an invaluable list of questions sure to bring up key issues if dealt with honestly. These are the main issues that Spencer believed affect a marriage:

1) religious unity or difference;
2) whether or not both want children;
3) whether or not the woman wants to keep on with her own work after marriage;
4) what scale of living can both be contented with;
5) what shall be done when either or both have some special duty toward father or mother;
6) in what way does each like to take a vacation or indulge in recreation?25

To Spencer, marriage and family were salvageable institutions based on more than the economic dependence of the woman on a husband. Walking open- eyed and guided by realities rather than wishful illusions, two people can create a balanced healthy partnership instead of socially sanctified prostitution. Spencer urged young people to take the liberty available to them in an American democratic society: “freedom is a means, not an end; a power to choose, a challenge, not an assertion.”26 How one builds a home is one of those choices.

Spencer did not make light of the fact that marriage poses difficult adjustments and changes in personal habits, especially when children are born. She did not care for Gilman’s plan to do away with the private home system of child raising. Satirically, Spencer spoke of the “omnipresent kindergarten, enlarged public school, and supervised play center, [and] summer camp.”27 She held two views that worked against this style of child raising: 1) assistant mothers and daycare are only for the rich, and 2) the family is of tremendous importance in the development of human personality and values. Although Gilman did include everyone in her image of cooperative living, Spencer was concerned for the poor and wondered how these services could exist for them.28


Anna Garlin Spencer viewed the vocational divide with a different eye than did Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Spencer did not encourage a “separate but equal” attitude between husband and wife. Her own life as a capable minister, educator, director, and organizational office holder expressed in action her belief in the unlimited capabilities of women in integrated home-work situations. She viewed the democratization and individual development of everyone in the family as part of a changing process that both women and men need to embrace.

Family and Its Members, a work published by Spencer only eight years before her death, explains in more detail her idea of the structure of the family unit in a democratic society. Spencer cherished the family as an “inner circle of love which comes to us by virtue simply of our being.”29 This inner circle of love had another key ingredient: democracy. Spencer held the “fundamental belief in the worth and dignity of every human being and the equal right of each and all to personality.”30 No one was to be solely in the service of another or to have their value estimated along such lines; instead, each person should seek perfection as an individual by making a contribution to the common life. According to Spencer, “the essence of democracy” began and was put to the test in the family unit.3’ She took the ideals of democracy from the outside world and embraced them as a welcome member of the family. As the title of her book suggests, no group is greater than its members; how, then, can a country based on democracy function properly without its members practicing democracy within family units?

Nurturing the democratic family spiritually and economically is a balancing act that Anna and William Spencer handled in partnership. The term “practical activist” applies in Spencer’s case. Soundly grounded in her own spirituality, she sought to move the world from the inside out. A nurturer of independent personal development, Spencer looked beyond the trappings of economic freedom to the shocking truth that women needed to recreate a spirituality of their own to share with the rest of the world.

One fault in Spencer’s theory may be that she felt the industrial revolution had already brought about this change. Sadly we know this is not true. The editor of the 1966 edition of Gilman’s Women and Economics found that women were still employed in “labor leavings” at that late date.32 In the 1990s many women in the western world are financially independent and working in high status positions only to bump their heads on the “glass ceiling” of limited advancement. So far, economic independence has not brought equality in the home or work place. Nor have commercial childcare or household appliances relieved mothers of their 24-hour job as primary care givers.

The thoughts of Anna Garlin Spencer which could have helped us over the last 60 years have been buried in a few dusty library shelves. The notable twelve-year period at Bell Street, where she claimed public fame as the first female minister in Rhode Island, is only a flash in a brilliant career. Her selfless work behind the scenes in many radical movements has allowed her voice to go unheard. Few people are comfortable in the spotlight of public radicalism, and often those in the spotlight have trouble joining with others to build change. Spencer made the transition look easy. Most of us will never be great writers, speakers, or radicals, but we can be group builders, members, and supporters of women and men in their struggle for new patterns of equality,


1Josephine Donovan, Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions of American Feminism (New York: Ungar, 1985), 50.

2Providence Free Religious Society, “To Anna Garlin Spencer,” 18 May 1880, Swarthmore Peace Collection, Swarthmore College, 1979, microfilm 84.1.

3West London Ethical Society, “To Anna Garlin Spencer,” 15 July 1913, Swarthmore Peace Collection, microfilm 84.1.

4Congregational Church, “To Anna Garlin Spencer,” 11 July 1876, Swarthmore Peace Collection, microfilm 84.1.

5Franny Plamer Purity, “Writings of Anna Garlin Spencer of Providence, RI,” n.p., n.d., 1.

6Lucy Stone to AGS, 6 August 1878, Swarthmore Peace Collection, microfilm 84.1.

7Edward T. James, et al., eds., Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary (Cambridge MA: Belknap, 1971) III, 33 1-332.

8Jone F. Johnson, “Anna Garlin Spencer: Reformer, Minister, and Educator,” n.p., 1991,6.

9Anna Garlin Spencer, “Parting Words,” 15 June 1902 (Providence RI: n.p., 1902), 15. Spencer was ordained in 1891, making her the first resident minister of Bell Street Chapel.

10AGS to Bell Street Chapel Society and Congregation, 3 Jan. 1902, in Bell Street Chapel attic (Providence: n.p., 1993) 1.

11AGS to George F. Ball, 24 Feb. 1903, Bell Street Chapel attic (Providence: n.p.) 2.

12Spencer, Woman’s Share in Social Culture (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1912), 158.

13Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Ann J. Lane, ed., The
Charlotte Perkins Gilma.n Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 3-20.

14Gilman, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relations between
Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (New York: Harper, 1966), 273.

15Ibid., 273.

16Ibid., 151.

17Donovan, Feminist Theory, 48.

18Jbjd., 49.

195pencer, Woman’s Share, 146.

20Donovan, Feminist Theory, 49.

21Spencer, Woman’s Share, 117.

22thij, 132.

23Ibid., 137.

24Spencer, “What Makes a Home: The Problem as Youth Faces It,” Ladies’ Home Journal, October, 1929, 107, 134.

25Ibid., 107.

26Thid 134.

27Spencer, Woman’s Share, 168.

28Ibjd., 163.

29Spencer, Family and Its Members (Philadelphia: J B. Lippincott, 1923), 44.

30Jbid., 42.

31Ibid., 42.

32C1 Degler, introduction, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (New York: Harper, 1966), xxxii.

Works Cited

Primary Sources
Spencer, Anna Garlin

Bell Street Chapel Discourses. Providence, RI: Journal of Commerce Co., 1899. [H]

Bell Street Chapel, letters

AGS to Mr. Ball (secretary of Bell Street); March 27, 1901
AGS to Bell Chapel Society; January 3, 1902
Mr. Ball to AGS; February 20, 1903
AGS to Mr. Ball; February 24, 1903 (original and copy)
Mr. Ball to AGS; March 25, 1903
AGS to Bell Street; May 7, 1903 [BCS]

Care of Dependent, Neglected, and Wayward Children being a Report: section 2. international Congress of Charities, Correction, Philanthropy. Ed. Charles Weley Birtwell. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins Press, 1894. [S. AT]

“The Children’s Bill of Rights.” Ladies Home Journal Feb. 1930. [RI]

Council Idea a Chronicle of its Prophets and a Tribute to Mary Wright Seawall : architect Form and Builder of its Method of Work. NY: National Council of Women of the United States, 1930. [S. P]

“The Duty of Religious Liberals Towards Marriage and Divorce.” The Unity of the Spirit: Proceeding and Papers of the First Congress of the National Federation of Religious Liberals held at Philadelphia, Penn. in the meeting house of the Religious Society of Friends. Ed. Charles W. Wendte. Boston: The Federation, 1909. [AT]

Family and its Members. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1923. [S. P]
History of the Bell Street Chapel: May 1888 to July 1902. Providence, RI: Robert Grieve, 1903. [AT]

Intemperance in its Relation to Social Ills. Boston: Unitarian Temperance Society, 1800. [S.AT]

“Orders of Service for Public Worship.” Providence, RI: n.p., 1896.[S. AT]

“Parting Words.” Bell Street Chapel, Providence, RI: n.p., June 15, 1902. [BCS]

Pen and the Sword or The Love of Money and Power. East Greenwich, RI: M. M. Reynolds, 1800. [RI]