Emily Greene Balch Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Among the first generation of women to graduate from college in large numbers, Balch authored the frequently cited Our Slavic Fellow Citizens (1910) and, as a reward for her peace activities, received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Early Life

Emily Greene Balch was born January 8, 1867, in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Her parents were Unitarians of English descent who could trace their ancestors back to the early seventeenth century Colonies. Her father, Francis Vergnies Balch, was a lawyer. Her mother, Ellen Maria (Noyes) Balch, was a housewife who produced six children and died at the age of forty-seven, when Emily was seventeen.

Balch received an unusually good education for her time. While attending private schools, she lived with her family in suburban Boston. At a time when women college graduates were regarded as social oddities and were less likely to marry, her father encouraged her to go to college. She chose the new school of Bryn Mawr because that was where her best friend was going. Bryn Mawr was founded by members of the Quaker religion, a religion which Balch eventually adopted. She was graduated in three years with a major in classics and won Bryn Mawr’s European fellowship as the outstanding senior. After privately studying sociology with Franklin H. Giddings, she used the fellowship to spend a year in Paris researching the public relief system there. The result was her book, Public Assistance of the Poor in France, published by the American Economic Association in 1893.

Life’s Work

Balch’s career can be divided into several phases, the first of which centered on social work. She became an expert on agencies and laws dealing with juvenile delinquency, and, in 1895, published the seventy-two-page Manual for Use in Cases of Juvenile Offenders and Other Minors in Massachusetts. Four years later, concerned women in Chicago brought about the first juvenile court. Subsequently, Balch revised her manual twice, in 1903 and 1908. Meanwhile, she met Jane Addams and others involved in the settlement house movement. In 1892, Balch joined a group of female college graduates in founding Denison House in Boston and headed that settlement during its first year. Through her continued involvement in Denison House, Balch came into direct contact with the poor, learning at first hand about working conditions and obstacles to labor organizing. After several years of charitable volunteering, however, she decided that she would have more impact as a teacher of social and economic subjects, inspiring her students to work for reform and guiding them in the best ways to achieve it.

To prepare for teaching, the second phase of Balch’s career, she studied briefly at Radcliffe (then called Harvard Annex), the University of Chicago, and the University of Berlin. At the last institution, she became especially familiar with socialism. Attending with her was another woman from Boston, Mary Kingsbury, who was later married to a student from Russia, Vladimir Simkhovitch, and who founded Greenwich House, a settlement in New York City. Balch and Kingsbury became lifelong friends and were also part of a national network of settlement leaders and reformers, many of them women, that provided support for one another’s goals and causes. On Balch’s return to Boston in 1896, she accepted a half-time position teaching economics at Wellesley College. The following year, she became a full-time instructor, in 1903, an associate professor, and in 1913, a professor.

At Wellesley, she taught courses on socialism with Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867) as the text, as well as courses on the labor movement, urban problems, economic history, and immigration. Balch was the kind of teacher who was actively involved in what she taught and who sought to stimulate a similar involvement on the part of her students. After 1913, Balch headed Wellesley’s Department of Economics and Sociology. She also continued her social activism. At one point, the president of Wellesley told Balch that she was not given the normal promotion because she had loaned two hundred dollars to a union whose bitter strike she had supported. If such a warning had any effect on Balch, it was to deepen her commitment to social activism. Balch was among the founders, in 1903, of the Women’s Trade Union League, serving for a time as its president. She also served on a variety of boards and commissions, including Boston’s City Planning Board (1914-1917), two state commissions—one on industrial education (1908-1909) and another on immigration (1913-1914)—and the committee on immigration of the Progressive Party (1912).

Balch’s landmark accomplishment as a professor was her definitive study of Slavic immigration, published as Our Slavic Fellow Citizens in 1910. When Balch began this project on a sabbatical leave in 1904, the systematic study of a particular immigrant group was largely untried. Balch did her research on both sides of the Atlantic—traveling to Austria-Hungary to investigate the conditions that caused immigrants to leave their homeland and then traveling around the United States to visit Slavic communities. To facilitate her research, she acquired a rudimentary knowledge of the Czech language. In addition to her sabbatical year, she took a second...

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