Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hannah Schoff - The "Mother" of the Nation's Organized Mothers

       Frederick and Hannah Schoff raised their seven children at 3418 Baring St. They moved there in the early 1880s and expanded the house to fit their family's needs. Hannah lived there until her death in 1940, almost 60 years later.
Frederic and Hannah Schoff, their three sons (L to R: Harold, Wilfred, and Alfred), one their daughters and son-in-laws (Edith and John Boericke) and granddauther Beatrice taken at 3418 Baring St.
        Leonard and Hannah were very industrious. Frederick ran Stow Flexible Shaft Co. which was co-founded by George Burnham, Jr. (214 N. 34th). Their flexible shafts and variable speed motors were widely used in industry and made possible such innovations as the dentist's drill. He was a member of the Church of the New Jerusalem (Swedenborg), the Union League, and the Sons of the Revolution.
Annie's picture from the Philadelphia Inquirer
      Hannah was by far the more interesting. In 1899, she read about an eight-year-old girl who set fire to a house. The girl’s mother died when she was two, she was sent to an orphanage and then put to work in a boarding house. A front page article in the Inquirer gave the girl's name and included a picture of her [at right].  It stated that experts “acknowledged her to be one of the most clever and accomplished of natural-born criminals.” Phrenology showed that “three prominences of the back head… [which] form the basis of our selfish properties, are well developed” on the girl. The consensus was that she was a “degenerate.” She confessed to setting the fire and to numerous petty crimes and was tried in a regular court and sentenced to a House of Refuge along with adults. Hannah Schoff convinced the judge to place the girl in a good home.
       Hannah credited this incident with setting her on a twenty-five-year battle to change the court system and focus attention on strengthening families and educating mothers. She declared that “there is no criminal class of children, but their faults come from faults of schools, church, and State.” (Phila. Inquirer, Nov. 28, 1911) She repeatedly stated that children who commit crimes “are not criminals. They are children who, by loving intelligent help at this time, may have their lives turned into the right direction.” (Phila. Inquirer, Nov. 3, 1912) She urged the legal system, schools and churches to develop approaches to supporting these children and their families.
       Her first step was to set about reforming the treatment of juveniles in the criminal justice system in Philadelphia. Working with other members of the New Century Club in Philadelphia, she began the campaign that led in 1901 to the establishment of a juvenile court system (only the second, after Chicago's), separate detention homes, and a system of (volunteer) probation officers. During the first eight years, she observed almost every session of the new court. She pushed for a similar system in Pittsburgh and for the whole Commonwealth. One of the New Century Club members who worked with her on this was Mrs. Elizabeth W. Garrett (3613 Powelton Ave.). Hannah also assisted successful efforts in other states including Connecticut, Louisiana, and Idaho as well as in Canada.  Her efforts in Canada led to her becoming the first woman ever invited to address the Canadian Parliament.
       At the same time, she was involved in the establishment of the National Congress of Mothers in 1897. She served as its president from 1902 to 1920. During this time, the organization's name was changed to the National Congress of Mothers and Parent Teacher Associations and she is credited with turning the PTA into a national organization with many state affiliates. She founded its journal, Child Welfare (later National Parent-Teacher) and edited it from her home. She was instrumental in getting Theodore Roosevelt to serve on an advisory board throughout her presidency.
       A major focus of the National Congress of Women was keeping children from falling into a life of crime. For example, they opposed complete bans on child labor on the grounds that some children should work to keep them out of trouble. Hannah oversaw a large-scale investigation into the childhood circumstances that led to criminal incarceration. Her study of 8,000 questionnaires filled out by prisoners and her years of observing the criminal justice system and visiting prisons led to her book The Wayward Child (1915). In it, she wrote that over the years she had been in touch with the so-called incorrigible children and she had seen many who were regarded as hopelessly wicked respond to the love and care given them.

       Hannah was very Victorian in that she stressed childrearing as "the highest, holiest duty of womanhood.” She felt women needed to be better prepared for this task. This focus on childrearing put her at odds with the more radical feminists of her day. For example, in an impromptu speech in Harrisburg in 1913, she declared that “With so much work waiting to be done, so many great and good undertakings that fall flat for lack of competent persons to assume control, it does not seem to me that our women of today may better devote themselves to the things which may be accomplished rather than bewail the fact that they are hampered in their actions for civic good by the lack of a vote.”
       Hannah Schoff was widely recognized as a national leader on many of the issues of her day involving the health and welfare of children. An article in the New York Tribune in 1917 about child nutrition referred to “the great progressive army of mothers and educators organized under the leadership of Mrs. Frederick Schoff.” The same year in an interview with her about proposals to give military training to school children, the Philadelphia Inquirer called her the “’mother’ of [the] nation’s organized mothers.” That interview (which I will post in my next blog) reveals in her own words Hannah Schoff’s strength, character and political acuteness. In her day, Hannah Schoff was a true force to be reckoned with. In terms of national prominence and influence on her times, she was certainly one of Powelton’s finest.

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