Women’s History Month is the perfect time to pay tribute to a largely unsung heroine, Grace Hoadley Dodge.
Born in 1856, to a family prominent in both business and philanthropy, Grace Dodge devoted her life to helping underprivileged women. She was instrumental in founding a number of prestigious and long-lasting aid organizations, including the YWCA, one of the oldest and largest women’s associations in the nation, and the Teachers College at Columbia University, the nation’s oldest and largest graduate school of education (featured in a current exhibit of photographs, documents and artifacts at the New-York Historical Society).
The New-York Historical Society also holds the papers of another enduring, though less well-known, organization Dodge helped to found: The Travelers Aid Society, the oldest non-sectarian, social welfare organization in the United States. The idea of aiding travelers had begun as early as 1851, when Bryan Mullanphy, a former mayor of St. Louis, left one-third of his million-dollar estate to assist the movement of westward travelers. In the 1860’s, several Boston organizations began providing aid to travelers, and in subsequent years, religious organizations offered assistance to travelers of their respective churches.
Dodge, like her contemporaries, viewed “travelers aid” primarily as a means of protecting female travelers from “vice” and the so-called “white-slave traffic,” but her approach to the problem — collecting data, employing professionals, and uniting factions — was ahead of its time. In 1905, she convened a committee of Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Protestant women to investigate the possibility of providing “regular Travelers’ Aid work at the stations” (up to that time, various religious and other groups had posted placards giving their addresses or met women by special request). The committee decided to place women agents in one or two major stations to meet women and girls who were traveling alone, and “to judge by the results obtained as to the necessity for further work.”
Active work began in Grand Central and Pennsylvania stations in July, 1905, and in its first year, the Travelers Aid Society of New York escorted 799 women and children from the stations to “some definite destination” and provided in-station assistance to twice that number. Encouraged by these results, the organization was formally incorporated in 1907, and rapidly expanded its services in both volume and breadth. Its credo, set forth in the Travelers Aid Society’s second annual report, exemplifies the catholic attitude which informed all of Dodge’s charitable endeavors:: “Jew and Gentile, Catholic and Protestant, and those of no religion, have been helped, solely on the ground of their necessity, by agents selected for their capacity to help, and for no other reason. The success so far attending the work has seemed to justify this cause.” Dodge’s business acumen (J.P. Morgan described her as the best business mind of his acquaintance) was also a factor in the organization’s success.
Not content with merely unifying religious factions, Dodge hoped to also consolidate the various local societies into a single, national or even international organization. In 1911, she established a “Department of National Cooperation” to help coordinate the work of the Travelers Aid Society of New York with other social service organizations, and in 1914 spearheaded a conference of representatives from Travelers Aid Societies throughout the country. Although Dodge, who died of “apoplexy” later that year, did not live to see it, her dream of a unified national organization was realized in 1917. Responding to rapidly changing social conditions, the national organization soon broadened its scope to assist men as well as women immigrants, and expanded from railroad stations to piers, bus stations and eventually airports. In 1925, the Travelers Aid Society began providing psychiatric services to its clients, one of the first organizations to do so; it was also among the first to employ professionally trained social workers. During WWII, the Travelers Aid Society was one of the original “USO’s” (United Services Organizations) that provided assistance to traveling service men and women, operating “troop transit” lounges in 175 locations, including Grand Central Station. Although scaled back from its peak years, the Travelers Aid Society still operates today.
Even by the lower-limelight standards of her era, Dodge was extremely shy of publicity. As a contemporary reporter noted, “No one ever hears of Grace Dodge. Her name rarely appears in a newspaper, her picture never . . . all of her gifts are anonymous.” Not surprisingly, we could not find a portrait of Dodge in our collections, but she deserves continuing recognition for her work in so many worthwhile organizations which have lasted to the present day.