The Bethany Home for Unwed Mothers: Fighting for the “Fallen”

babies for alyssa

In celebration of International Women’s Month it seems appropriate to explore one of the many untold stories surrounding the women of Hennepin County. Being a woman, much less a mother, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was no easy feat. Women were confined to the private sphere and expected to be homemakers who reared the children. However, all too often, this idyllic vision of family-life created harmful stereotypes and devastating consequences for women who became pregnant out of wedlock. These mothers were shunned and at times completely exiled from their communities and families. In the 19th century they were called “fallen women. Under Christian religious doctrine, it was believed these women had fallen from grace after losing their purity and would not enter heaven. This stigma perpetuated the myth that the female sex was promiscuous and untrustworthiness. This often led to incidents of domestic abuse and the separation of mothers from their children so they would not “corrupt” them. However, during this dark period of women’s history, some women in positions of power and privilege took a stand.  

In July 1876, in Minneapolis, a small group of upper-class women, known as the Sisterhood of the Bethany, a Quaker religious society, joined together to establish the Bethany Home for Fallen Women, with the hope of giving unwed mothers a second chance. The founding of the Bethany Home would not have been possible without the work of two extremely dedicated women fighting back against the stigmas of their time. Charlotte Ouisconsin Van Cleve and Abby G. Swift were both active members of the community with an unstoppable desire to better the lives of women. 

Abigail Grant Swift was born on August 19, 1832, in West Falmouth, Massachusetts. As the daughter of a highly-regarded fatherCapt. Silas Swift, she received a fairly comprehensive education, a privilege not offered to most girls at the time. On February 11, 1858, Abby married Richard Junius Mendenhall, a wealthy plantation owner from South Carolina. The newlywed couple moved to Minneapolis, arriving on April 25, 1858. Abby recounts her daily life and activist work in her diarynow kept in the archives at Hennepin History Museum, which dates from her first arrival in Minneapolis until her death in 1900. Abby acted as the first treasurer of the Bethany Home, serving in her role for 23 years. 

Charlotte Van Cleve was born on July 1, 1819, in Prairie dChien, Wisconsin. Charlotte was an early outspoken advocate of women’s suffrage in Minnesota. She became the first woman elected to the Minneapolis School Board in 1876. Charlotte’s stepped into the public sphere as she joined forces with other women in the Sisterhood of the Bethany, including Abby Mendenhall, to establish a home for “fallen women.” She was the president of the Bethany Home from its founding until her death. Charlotte had twelve children of her own and fostered another ten children from the Bethany Home over the course of her life.  

The first mention of the Bethany Home in Abby’s diary is on July 24, 1876. She writes, “Went to St. Paul to find a matron for our Bethany Home (Magdelene work) as it is now. Did not succeed.” This pattern of employment and financial troubles plagued the early years of the Bethany Home. In these formative years Abby and Charlotte made great sacrifices in their personal lives which culminated in the official incorporation of the Bethany Home on March 21, 1879, exactly 140 years ago during this 2019 International Women’s Month.  

The basic premise of the Bethany Home was to help women who had become pregnant out of wedlock, whether through sex work or by failed relationships. Upon entering the home, they signed a contract for a year and agreed to obey the house rules, although there was no security and the “inmates” could leave if they so choose. Once their infants were born, every mother was given the choice to keep their child with assistance from staff at the home for the next three to four months or to place their child up for adoption. Most women entered the home under aliases to protect their identities wither from disapproving families or male superiors seeking to return them to prostitution.   

Over the next decade, the Bethany Home became a pillar of the women’s community of Minneapolis. Charlotte Van Cleve and Abby Mendenhall began targeting the powerful men running the sex industry, rather than blaming the young women who had been coerced into the profession. Once, when interviewed by a newspaper regarding the integrity of the “fallen women,” Charlotte memorably remarked, “Where are the men who make these girls what they are? Go find them in our business marts, drawing rooms, and churches…Men are getting rich on the toil and tears of famishing women and children. With the mindset of targeting the source of illegitimate births, Charlotte and Abby took advantage of the already established laws and turned them in their favor.  

In the 1880s, the City of Minneapolis enacted fines against known houses of prostitution and brothels within city limits. This meant that these locales had to pay monthly fines to the city to continue operation. With money always being in short supply at the Bethany Home, the women set about to turn the tables on the stigma of “fallen women.” Charlotte and Abby convinced the city to give them two-thirds of the monthly collected fines to help fund the Bethany Home, directly supporting the women who were victims of the industry. With a solid budgetary plan and a persuasive argument, the women were victorious and acquired funding for years to come much to the dismay of some of the male council members.  

Following the passing of Abby Mendenhall, in 1900 and Charlotte Van Cleve, in 1907, the Bethany Home fell on hard times undoubtedly due to repeated attempts by the City Council to cut the facility off financially. The home closed its doors after being condemned sometime around 1924 and was replaced by the Harriet Walker Maternity Hospital, which continued operation on the site until 1945. An article published in 1921, detailing the work of the Sisterhood, claims that 8,000 women have been helped over the course of the Bethany Home’s 45-year operation. Both Charlotte’s and Abby’s obituaries commemorate their years of tireless dedication to the Home. Although confined by the societal expectations and politics of their time, these women challenged the accepted standards and sought to give unwed mothers a new lease on life.  

Author: Ashley Fischer is the Undertold Stories Intern at Hennepin History Museum. She is earning a bachelor’s degree in English and History from the University of Minnesota, with a focus on literary criticism and 19th century American history. 

 

Sources: 

“Giving a Square Deal to the Babies Who “Have No Right to Be Born”.” The Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, May 15, 1921. 

Mendenhall, Abby G. “Bethany Home for Unwed Mothers.” The Quaker Writing. Accessed February 27, 2019. http://www.qhpress.org/quakerpages/qwhp/bethany.htm. 

Perlman, Tamatha. “Where Are the Men Who Make These Girls What They Are?” The Historyapolis Project. March 11, 2014. Accessed March 6, 2019. http://historyapolis.com/blog/2014/03/11/where-are-the-men-who-make-these-girls-what-they-are/. 

Petersen, Penny A. Minneapolis Madams: The Lost History of Prostitution on the Riverfront. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 

Wright, Gwen, writer. “Unwed Mother’s Home.” Transcript. In History Detectives. PBS. September 19, 2005. 

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