Jessie Taft, “The Woman Movement from the Point of View of Social Consciousness,” 1916

Source: Courtesy of Roger Taft

Jessie Taft (left) and Virginia Robinson in front of their home in Flourtown, Pennsylvania in 1954. The two women met at the University of Chicago in 1908, where they established an intellectual and emotional bond that lasted for the rest of their lives.

This brief excerpt from Jessie Taft's dissertation suggests her enduring theoretical interest in the social foundations of selfhood and other social psychological themes that underpinned practical therapeutic approaches to child adoption, family life, and social problems in general. Taft earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1913, where she worked under the direction of George Herbert Mead. The dissertation showcased her proficiency in bringing abstract social theory to bear on a subject with practical and contemporary import, women’s collective identity and action. Her basic argument was that movements of women and industrial workers gave social expression to personal conflicts rooted in spheres understood (mistakenly) to be private, natural, and therefore immune from social influence. Her work in child and family welfare later on was based on very similar thinking about the family.


Such a survey as we have just made leaves little doubt as to the reality and seriousness of the chaotic conditions of which the “uneasy woman” complains. The bare fact that there exists in society at the present moment a large class of idle women; a still larger class of women working in homes at enormous waste of time, energy, and efficiency; a third and comparatively small class whose work, though satisfactory, is of such a character as to interfere with marriage if they desire it; and a fourth class whose work is rendering them unfit for anything else, is sufficient evidence in itself that women are not realizing themselves through their social relations in any complete or harmonious way; but rather are buffeted about at the mercy of these same social relations. The selves which women bring to bear upon the struggle seem to be overwhelmed by a situation that is too large for them. They are controlled by these external conditions instead of realizing themselves through them.

The case is not different with the modern man. The woman has no monopoly on conflict and disharmony. He, too, is swamped by the system in: which he finds himself. He, too, is being made, willy-nilly, by the relations in which modern business and industry are involving him; yet he is not expressing himself consciously through these relations. One has only to recall the struggle between capital and labor, the way in which life with its ideal interests is being crowded out by the pressure of the economic machinery not only on the laborer but on the man who is chained down to money-making, the frequent incompatibility of home and family with the work for which the man is fitted by nature, the alienation of the father from his home responsibilities through lack of leisure, to realize that the unsatisfactory character of the woman's life is but a conspicuous part of a wider and more basic situation which involves men as well.

This thesis is based on the contention that the incompatibilities and oppositions sketched above are genuine and are the particular expressions of a more basic conflict existing between the self, the personality, of the modern man and woman, and the present social situation through which this self has not yet succeeded in expressing itself because it is not yet sufficiently conscious of the social character of that situation or of the method through which control can be secured. The realization, that we have as yet no social control and few personalities, either masculine or feminine, sufficiently socialized to cope with the modern world, is being forced upon us most conspicuously in the terrific conflicts arising from the indifference of the form taken on by business and industry to the actual content involved. . . .

The woman can never become a full-fledged, rational human being, nor can she be held responsible for any of the conditions in modern life until society ceases to consider it essential to womanliness that she receive passively the impact of all the currents of present-day organized existence. As long as woman has no part in directing the forces which determine the family, herself, the least detail of her domestic life, society is retaining the lady of chivalry at the expense of conscious motherhood and is encouraging the immediate impulsive reactions of the simple situation at the price of deliberate reflection and social consciousness which alone are effective under the complex conditions of today. Just as the great labor movement is trying to bring the laborer to consciousness of his needs and possibilities, and society to awareness of the advantage of conscious labor, so the woman movement has before it a twofold task: first, to make women conscious of their relations to a social order, second, to show society its need of conscious womanhood. . . .


The clash of home and outer world which so disturbs the feminine mind today, as well as the struggle of labor and capital, might be avoided to a large extent by mere change in the external working conditions, by a lessening of the hours of labor, by a minimum wage, by improved housing and sanitation, by a scientific cooperative housekeeping. But in the last analysis, the basic conflict on whose solution even the improvement of external conditions depends, the conflict between the narrow self and the wide social environment, can be adjusted only on the supposition that personality or selfhood is made, not born, and that a less conscious form of personality may evolve into a more conscious form under conditions which are neither mysterious nor absolute but can be understood and made use of. The criticisms and analyses of the modern woman which we have examined all point to a personality inadequate to the life into which social and economic changes have plunged her. If the crux of the matter lies here, the fundamental purpose of the woman movement must be to correct this state of affairs by helping to bring into being a more conscious womanhood and by arousing society to an awareness of its need for such a womanhood. To believe that this is possible is to imply certain things about the nature of selves, personality, or self-consciousness (the terms are used interchangeably in this discussion). If we conceive of the self as something which is given, static, present from the beginning both in the individual and the race, or, what is practically the same thing, as something which develops absolutely, reaching its full growth regardless of any known conditions, then we have put the self outside of our own world, have made it mysterious and unknowable, and by so doing have given up the hope of social reconstruction, for there is no reconstruction of society without a reconstruction of selves. We can get no hold on a self that is static nor on one that develops absolutely. If social problems are ever to be solved like other problems in our world, selves must be thought of as existing in grades and degrees, evolving gradually in the individual and in the race, with certain definite conditions of growth which can be discovered and used. When we understand how consciousness develops into more and more adequate forms, then we have turned our once mysterious and unknown phenomenon into yielding, pliable material for a genuine social science. Control of physical objects was impossible as long as physical facts were accepted as fixed, mysterious, or absolute. Just so, social control is impossible as long as the self remains an unknown quantity. . . .

The discovery of the social character of even the intellectual processes and the relation of these processes to the building up of a self gives a breadth and comprehensiveness to personality that it has never before attained in history. At a very early period it is possible for consciousness to take on the form of a self through building up the selves around it and playing various parts without having reached the point where it is capable of subjecting to analysis the self thus attained. It is also possible for consciousness to advance to the stage where it can turn in upon itself and dissect the self in a highly sophisticated way without even then realizing that it is part of a social process and that its intellectual activities, however expressed, are just as much a part of the personality and just as social as the feelings or the will. The final step of seeing the self as a process whose law can be stated and of finding in the self and in all social relations material that admits of reconstruction and scientific handling, just as in the case of supposedly nonsocial objects and relations, marks the highest point of growth in self-consciousness as yet developed in our experience. . . .

Our age is witnessing the disappearance of the isolated individual and the growth of an internal control based on the recognition of the dependence of the individual on social relations and his actual interest in social goods and in the discovery that thought is social in origin and can be used to advantage in the social as well as in the physical world. The freedom that was supposed to reside in the individual is seen to be realized only through society. The individual is not economically or morally free except when he is able to express himself, to realize his ends through the common life. As an individual, he is powerless to determine his own actions beyond a certain point. He must think with society and make his thought effective through social media or he has no control. Moreover, the hypotheses which he offers as solutions to social problems must include as part of the data to be considered the impulses and interests, the point of view, of all classes of people, if they are to be successful. In other words, not only is thought social in origin, but it keeps a social content and character. The individual must think as a social being, must take over the points of view of all his social “others” if his thinking is to be true in a social order, that is, the value of his thought in handling social questions is tested just as it is in handling physical problems, by the adequacy with which it covers all the data involved. Hypotheses which ignore the interests of entire classes of people, which fail to recognize existing social relations, will not work in the long run.

The hard and unyielding individual with his boundless, empty freedom is compensated for the loss of his abstract rights by the discovery that concrete freedom, an actual realizing of his own powers, is possible through a social order and through a selfhood that grows in an intelligible way and is, therefore, subject to reconstruction by the same methods that are continually changing the physical world in accordance with human desires.


Source: Jessie Taft, “The Woman Movement from the Point of View of Social Consciousness” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1916), 24-25, 30, 36-37, 40-41, 51-52.

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
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