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Lowell, Josephine Shaw (1843-1905)

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Josephine Shaw LowellUnsentimental Reformer: The Life of Josephine Shaw Lowell by Joan Waugh, published by Harvard University Press in 1999 celebrates the sister of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw who died in the Civil War. Josephine’s husband, Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., also died a hero in battle, never seeing their daughter Carlotta who died one month before his death.

His widow, who always wore black for the rest of her life, went back to the family on Staten Island where she had been married in the Unitarian Church. Her lifelong Unitarian faith was decisively manifest in her career of fostering organized philanthropy and government service. She began her day and night labor helping to establish schools for black children in the South. On being appointed by Governor Tilden she became the first woman commissioner of the New York State Board of Charities, lobbying and legislating on behalf of the poor.

Her biographer says that a belief in a just and human God permeated her work of national urban reform, the unionization of labor, and being a leader of the Anti-imperialist League of New York opposing both the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. Though she suffered attacks and condemnation, she became the founder of the New York City’s Charity Organization Society and was a national exemplar and interpreter of the social reform movement nationwide.

Public recognition of her achievement came shortly after her death. The Fountain Terrace of Bryant Park of the New York Public Library displays the pink granite Josephine Shaw Lowell Fountain, the city’s first public memorial dedicated to a woman.