Josephine Shaw Lowell

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Josephine Shaw Lowell (December 16, 1843 — October 12, 1905) was an American social activist and Progressive reform leader. Born into a wealthy family, she volunteered with and founded numerous charities, dedicating her life to improving the lives of the under-privileged. Lowell not only worked to bring practical help to those in need, she also invested much effort in promoting her view that giving charity was not enough—people needed to be helped to become self-sufficient. Thus, she advocated for better working conditions and wages, particularly for women. She founded and was active in organizations such as the New York Consumers League that strove to improve working conditions for women by encouraging consumers to purchase items made and sold by companies that treated their workers well. The umbrella organization, the National Consumers League, became a powerful lobbying group, instrumental in passing the Fair Labor Standards Act. Lowell's efforts significantly improved the quality of life, particularly for women, for many—a substantial contribution to the advancement of humankind toward a peaceful, prosperous world for all.


Josephine Shaw was born on December 16, 1843, in Roxbury, Massachusetts into a wealthy New England family. Her parents, Francis George Shaw and Sarah Sturgis, were both philanthropists and intellectuals who encouraged their five children to study, learn, and become involved in their communities. The Shaw family had strong Unitarian roots, and spent most of their wealth on helping their community. Josephine’s sister, Anna Shaw Curtis became the wife of American writer George William Curtis, and her brother Robert Gould Shaw, was the colonel in command of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the American Civil War.

Josephine was a very good student, and was sent to study abroad, where she was able to learn several languages. She was motivated to always seek and learn new things, owing this to the intellectual discourse of her family. In her late teens, she joined her mother in the Woman’s Central Relief Association in New York City, which packed clothes and food for soldiers. Lowell enjoyed volunteer work and expressed great interest in the political affairs of the country.

When she was twenty years of age, Josephine married Charles Russell Lowell, a businessman. She followed him to Virginia when he was called into service during the Civil War. Josephine helped wounded men on the battlefield. Charles died in battle, less than a year after they were married and only one month before their daughter was born.

A young widow, Lowell moved to Staten Island with her daughter, Carlotta, and lived with her parents. She became a businesswoman and a social reformer. One of the first tasks she took on was to travel to Virginia and help establish a school for African American children. This was the beginning of her lifelong dedication to charity work. In 1874, she moved to East 30th Street, in Manhattan, and her house became famous for its open doors for everybody in need.

In 1876, Governor of New York State Samuel Tilden appointed Lowell as Commissioner of the New York State Board of Charities. She was the first woman to ever hold this position, and served actively on the Board until 1889. During that time she helped to establish the first custodial asylum for women in the United States in 1885. She also initiated the introduction of matrons in police stations, a practice established in 1888.

Lowell was also active in the Anti-Imperialist League where she met other prominent Progressives. She served as Vice-President of the League from 1901-1905 and was a great advocate of Philippine independence.

Throughout her lifetime, Lowell founded many charitable organizations including: the New York Charity Organization in 1882, the House of Refuge for Women (later known as the State Training School for Girls) in 1886, the Woman's Municipal League in 1894, and the Civil Service Reform Association of New York State in 1895. In 1890 she founded the New York Consumers' League.

Josephine Lowell died in 1905 in New York City.


Josephine Lowell was committed to social justice and reform and seized the opportunity to become involved in Progressive reform and the eradication of poverty. Most of her ideas stemmed from her religious beliefs. She was a convinced Unitarian, preferring their liberal faith and focus on social problems. She sincerely wanted to help others, working to improve care for the mentally ill, regulate working hours for women and children, advance consumer's rights, improve benefits for dependent children and widows, and fight imperialism.

Although Lowell dedicated her life to charity work, she did not believe that charity alone could relieve suffering. She held that providing clothes or food was not enough, advocating that charity should rehabilitate the recipient. It should help develop the moral nature of those it helps. She held that almsgiving was not a good practice, since it created dependence and did not morally uplift people. Charity workers instead need to develop personal relationship with those they try to help. She argued that:

each case must be dealt with radically and a permanent means of helping it be found, and that the best way to help people is to help them to help themselves (McAnanama 1998).

Idleness was, according to Lowell, the major cause of poverty. In a letter to her sister-in-law in 1883 she wrote

If the working people had all they ought to have, we should not have the paupers and criminals. It is better to save them before they go under, than to spend your life fishing them out afterward. ... Common charity, that is, feeding and clothing people, I am beginning to look upon as wicked! Not in its intention, of course, but in its carelessness and its results, which certainly are to destroy people’s character and make them poorer and poorer. If it could only be drummed into the rich that what the poor want is fair wages and not little doles of food, we should not have all this suffering and misery and vice (McAnanama 1998).

Perhaps her most wide-ranging and effective organization was the New York Consumer's League which she established in 1890. This organization strove to improve the wages and the working conditions of women workers in New York City. The League was particularly concerned with retail clerks. Lowell published a "White List" that contained a list of stores known to treat women workers well. Initially, the list was very short, but gradually many small businesses joined the League.

Lowell was also successful in the New York Charity Organization Society, which she founded in 1882. The group was devoted to the cooperation of charitable agencies.

In the latter part of her life she became more politically active, supporting William Jennings Bryan for president. Her speeches revealed a passion for patriotism and morality:

When the people of the United States consent to deprive another people of its rights and liberties, they strike a terrific blow at the foundations upon which stand their own rights and liberties (McAnanama 1998).


After the initial success of the New York Consumer's League, its chapters were adopted in many other cities and across the country. The umbrella organization, the National Consumers League (NCL), became a powerful lobbying group, claiming credit for helping pass the Fair Labor Standards Act that established a minimum wage.

The memorial service to Josephine Shaw Lowell was attended by hundreds of mourners. She was remembered as one who devoted herself to public affairs without sacrificing her womanliness. The Fountain Terrace in Bryant Park, Manhattan, which is behind the New York Public Library, is dedicated to Josephine Lowell. This fountain is New York City's first public memorial dedicated to a woman.


  • Lowell, Josephine S. 1880. Public charities of New York City. Albany: Weed Parsons.
  • Lowell, Josephine S. 1880. Reformatories for women. Albany: State Board of Charities.
  • Lowell, Josephine S. [1884] 1984. Public relief and private charity. New York: Ayer Co. Publishing. ISBN 0405031157
  • Lowell, Josephine S. 1893. Industrial arbitration and conciliation some chapters from the industrial history of the past thirty years. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.
  • Lowell, Josephine S. 1895. Poverty and its relief: the methods possible in the city of New York. Boston: G.H. Ellis.
  • Lowell, Josephine S. 1897. The rights of capital and labor and industrial conciliation. Publications of the Christian Social Union, no. 38. Boston: Christian Social Union.
  • Lowell, Josephine S. 1898. Consumers' leagues. Publications of the Christian Social Union, no. 46. Boston: Christian Social Union.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Henretta, James A., ed. 2007. America's History. Vol. 2, 5th edition. Bedford St. Martins'. ISBN 0312452861
  • McAnanama, Susan. 1998. "Josephine Shaw Lowell 1843-1905 & Anna Shaw Curtis 1838-1927" in True Women, New Women: Women in New York City, 1890-1940. College of Staten Island at CUNY. Retrieved November 27, 2007.
  • Rich, Margaret E. 1954. Josephine Shaw Lowell, 1843-1905: A volunteer in social work. Community Service Society of New York.
  • Stewart, William R. 1911. 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. New York: The Macmillan Co.
  • Waugh, Joan 1997. Unsentimental Reformer: The Life of Josephine Shaw Lowell. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674930363

External links

All links retrieved September 7, 2022.


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