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Law and the Fabric of the Everyday: Settlement Houses, Sociological Jurisprudence, and the Gendering of Urban Legal Culture
Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal (2006)
  • Felice J Batlan, Chicago-Kent College of Law
This Article argues that at the turn of the twentieth century, settlement houses were particularly important and vibrant legal sites, in which women settlement workers played groundbreaking and multiple legal roles.' Settlement houses created a geographical and intellectual space where diverse parties participated in analyzing, examining, discussing, popularizing, producing, and reforming law. More broadly, settlement houses were part of a rich and prolific urban legal environment that produced and prompted legal innovation and experimentation. Surprisingly, however, legal scholars have almost entirely neglected the groundbreaking legal work that settlement houses performed. Such neglect results in an impoverished understanding of fin-de-siecle legal reform and fails to uncover the central role that middle-class and elite women played as providers of legal services and transmitters of legal knowledge. This Article seeks to begin to rectify this situation and to prompt a dialogue about how we conceptualize the ways in which settlement houses contributed to and propagated legal reform and the central role that women and gender played in structuring such issues.
This Article makes five principal points. First, settlement houses created a new location where a wide range of legal services and legal knowledge could be delivered and transmitted to the poor. Second, settlement workers hoped to Americanize immigrants through law by inculcating the importance of the rule of law pursuant to which immigrants became aware of their rights as well as of their legal obligations and duties. Third, under the rubric of philanthropy and the nascent field of social work, settlement house work allowed middle class and elite women to essentially engage in the practice of law. Fourth, the settlements birthed a new conception of law-one that was deeply grounded in the daily life of the home and neighborhood and often the domestic work that women performed. In doing so, settlement houses created a novel jurisprudence and way of practicing law that would later resonate with sociological jurisprudence. Finally this constellation of issues regarding gender and Americanization created a situation in which immigrant women often came under the intense scrutiny of settlement workers. Thus we must understand the legacy of the settlement houses as ambiguous and as presenting multiple layers of complexity. On the one hand, settlement workers envisioned a new type of legal practice in which numerous services and legal knowledge would be delivered to the poor, but on the other hand, through the law, settlement workers often imposed their own sense of morals and what constituted appropriate home life and public order upon immigrants.
Publication Date
February, 2006
Citation Information
Law and the Fabric of the Everyday: Settlement Houses, Sociological Jurisprudence, and the Gendering of Urban Legal Culture, 15 Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal 235 (2006).