Vida Dutton Scudder (Dec. 15, 1861, Madura, India—Oct. 9, 1954) — — Educator, social worker, author, social gospel movement activist
By Angelique Brown, MSW
Introduction: Vida Scudder was involved in social change inside and outside of the Episcopal Church. A self described class-conscious and revolutionary socialist, she spent a large part of her life attempting to reconcile Socialist politics with Christianity. Active in the settlement house movement as one of the founders of Denison House in Boston, she was also an advocate for the working-class and labor unions.
Career: Born in India to missionary parents, Vida Dutton Scudder and her mother returned to Boston after the untimely death of her father. In 1884, she graduated from Smith College and subsequently went to Oxford University to pursue her postgraduate studies. At Oxford, she attended the lectures of John Ruskin whose consciousness of social problems encouraged her to question and challenge her own privileged life. Initially involved in Fabian socialism, she later developed an appreciation for the class struggle and economic justice work presented by Karl Marx. In addition to her socialist stance, Scudder was very active in the Episcopal Church and the settlement house movement. Her years as an English literature professor at Wellesley College, where she taught from 1887 to 1927, allowed her to delve into the social visions of English writers and poets. She also angered the administration and stimulated students with her courses that spoke to the political economy.
Additionally, like many of her activist contemporaries, Scudder was involved in the settlement house movement. For twenty years, she served as the head of Denison House in Boston. Additionally, she was a charter member of a workers’ organization, the Brotherhood of the Carpenter, and worked in the Christian Social Union. Scudder held to the belief that Socialism and Christianity fit perfectly together. In her introductory statement to The Church and the Hour: Reflection of a Socialist Churchwoman she states that the papers in the collection had one purpose, “…to promote better understanding between the religious world which fears social revolution, and the unchurched world of radical passion which desires it.”
Vida Scudder is described to have been at the epicenter of advanced thought in the church and society. She was strong in her faith as well as her beliefs about socialism, and in 1912 took a controversial position by speaking at a striker’s meeting and supporting the striking textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She was also supportive of the United States’ entry into World War I even when other Socialist leaders were opposed to the President’s decision. A few years later, in 1920, she embraced pacifism.
In one of her several books, Socialism and Character, (Houghton Mifflin Co. 1912) we can glimpse Vida Scudder’s belief that charity alone is a failure and that what is needed to alleviate social ills requires an economic solution.
“…The simple, depressing instincts of pre-democratic, pre-evolutionary days still largely dominate our social creeds and deeds. We talk much of brotherhood: but our democratic faith seldom penetrates below the surface of our theories or actions. Evolutionary language is always on our lips, but we direct our social activities as if change on broad lines were inconceivable, and we condemned helplessly to minister to the end of time, within the limits of a static stratified society, to the same old needs forever being generated by the same old situation. Yet we are growing restive . . . we cannot stay content with helping the individual here and there. Modern times have not abolished the old idea of sanctity, but they have made a distinct addition to it. They put stress on a new “note”: efficiency, with which we may be sure none of the older saints ever bothered themselves . . .
“And thus the question rose, as to the value and efficiency of those ministries[we] so ardently pursued. Did they meet the situation? Putting mind as well as heart on the matter, could we honestly feel that the indefinite multiplication of such agencies as occupied us, whether these happened to be organized charities, peoples’ institutes, soup kitchens or missions, would we ever bring effectual satisfaction to the needs we sought to relieve?
“. . . So before the end of the century here were scientific charity, standing for more or less intelligent care of our victims, and sundry attempts at deeper fellowship, ending in that most significant expression of social chivalry, the settlement house movement. Many another constructive activity, instituted and administered by those children of privilege who respond to moral stimuli, began to crystallize. New every morning, fresh every evening, leagues were formed, committees appointed, for fighting salient evils: for protecting childhood, cleansing politics, eliminating disease, for regulating in myriad ways the unbridled passions of self interest and greed that have created our unlovely civilization. That new crusade whose call we had answered gathered its hosts to fight the serried forces of industrial and social wrong; every day new members joined it, — valiant spirits, happiest of modern men and women, on pilgrimage to the Holy City of social peace.
“It was splendid, it was inspiring: it was by all odds the best thing that the modern world had to show. But what did it achieve? What had they done, — all the laborious committees. Their appeals loaded our breakfast tables, seeking to squeeze a little more reluctant money from those comfortable classes who groaned and gave, and meantimes changed not one iota, whether nominal Christians or not, the source of their incomes or their standards of living. Did the reforms get accomplished? Improvement here and there might be noted in detail. Many individuals lived happier and better lives, thanks to the friendship that reached them. Yet the hard laws of industry went on unchecked, or were checked if at all less by the efforts of enlightened philanthropy than by the outraged self-interest of the general public or the rising demands of the workers. Placed in the balance against the ugly facts of modern civilization, the total results of our philanthropy and our reform made a pretty pitiful show! (From Part I, pp. 14-18)
“…[T]he brave helpless experiments of philanthropy and reform . . . are inspired in the main by moral passion and social compunction of the purest. But the plain fact is that they have the feebleness of reflex action. They spring, not from life itself, but from the pitying contemplation of life, which is a very different thing. They inspire reverence, they even play an essential minor part in modern life; but we can never look to them for adequate social regeneration.
“Take the working girl, for example, and gather up in imagination the total effect of all the benevolent agencies which exist to help her: the girl’s club, the settlement, the vacation house, the Associated Charities, if worst comes to worst, and even the Women’s Trade-union league. Measure the force of their reaction on her personality in comparison with that of two crude economic facts, — the wage she receives and the duration of her working day. The world of our eager efforts dwindles both comically and tragically in our eyes, and the broad economic condition bulks out of all proportion as the real master of that woman’s life. On the surface, our sympathies may tinker away pleasantly and our charities may afford relief: in the depths, her life will never be affected till the economic factor be altered. Widen the vision, look through history; where can one point to social sacrifice or service on a scale sufficiently large radically to alter the course of events? The answer may be painful; let it at least be honest. The deep, the basal, the creative forces, have in nine times out of ten been rooted in the economic principles of self-interest or class-expediency. Through the indomitable presence of life itself, craving for satisfaction and expansion, and in no other wise, effective advance has been achieved.
“Thus we are forced however reluctantly to side with Bakunin and face the truth. Economic necessity is the determining base of permanent social change. The appeal to moral incentive can accomplish splendid work in detail; it can bring blessed help to unnumbered individuals, comforting, inspiring, and achieving once in a while under the most depressing circumstances, miracles of rehabilitation, practical and spiritual. But unaided, it is in the main helpless to compass that decent society we crave, and which to our shame two thousand years of Christianity have failed to realize.” (From Part II, pp. 131-133)
On October 10, 1954 Vida Scudder died in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Her work continues to be honored by the Episcopal Church in the United States with a feast day on their liturgical calendar.
Excerpts of Vida Scudders works may be found here:
The full text of The Church and the Hour: