Josephine Shaw Lowell

Josephine Shaw Lowell (1843-1905), American social reformer and philanthropist, influenced legislation and organizations creating modern programs for the poor and needy.

Josephine Shaw was born in West Roxbury, Mass., on Dec. 16, 1843, into a family marked by social and intellectual distinction. She was raised on Staten Island, N.Y. During 1851-1855 the family lived and traveled in Europe, where "Effie" proved brilliant in her absorption of cultures and languages. She continued her education in New York and Boston.

When the Civil War broke out, Josephine Shaw worked intensively for a branch of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. On Oct. 31, 1863, she married Col. Charles Russell Lowell of Massachusetts and joined him on the fighting front in Virginia. She had already lost her brother, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, in the war. On Oct. 19, 1864, her husband died in the Battle of Cedar Creek, Va. Six weeks later their daughter, Carlotta Russell Lowell, was born.

Lowell returned to Staten Island and began a new career, seeking to advance African American education. She visited schools as well as hospitals, jails, and asylums. She later moved to Manhattan with her mother and daughter in order to be nearer the scene of her activities. Her work with the State Charities Aid Association and her impressive reports on the need for more adequate facilities for the poor and defenseless, as well as better investigatory processes, caused Governor Samuel J. Tilden in 1876 to appoint her to the State Board of Charities. She was the first woman to be so honored. As a result of her unremitting labors, the first custodial asylum in the country for mentally disabled women was established in 1878. In 1881 legislation was passed which resulted in state reformatories for women.

Lowell's reports, speeches, and correspondence—models of clarity and fact—affected dependent children, the insane, almshouses, prison conditions, the unemployed, and civil service reform. Although she concentrated on New York, her work affected national services. Her greatest achievement was the founding of the Charity Organization Society of the City of New York, which gave form and direction to all the efforts of distinguished philanthropists in that city and beyond.

The thoughts of Lowell went beyond charity to the causes of crime and injustice. In 1889 she left the State Board of Charities to move more freely in other directions. Her interests included the Woman's Municipal League and the National Consumers' League (of which she was a principal founder), as well as the study of methods and practical experiments for mediating labor-management conflicts. She died Oct. 12, 1905.

Further Reading on Josephine Shaw Lowell

A collection of Mrs. Lowell's major papers, some correspondence, and a bibliography are in William Rhinelander Stewart, ed., The Philanthropic Work of Josephine Shaw Lowell, Containing a Biographical Sketch of Her Life together with a Selection of Her Public Papers and Private Letters (1911). See also In Memoriam: Josephine Shaw Lowell (1906).

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