“When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse….The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter.”

Theodore Dreiser was writing about young Caroline Meeber’s fateful train ride to Chicago in Sister Carrie, but he could easily have been talking about any number of impoverished folks arriving in big cities around 1900. Single women trying to support themselves, freed slaves from the South, new immigrants–all faced potentially crippling challenges when they landed in cities. Single women needed to find legitimate employers and housing where landlords wouldn’t prey on them financially or sexually. Rampant racism made it difficult for blacks to find decent jobs and any housing at all. And immigrants lacking English skills found many Americans hostile to their customs and manners.

For these arrivistes, Dreiser’s “saving hands” could mean the difference between prostitution and a career, exploitation and self-sufficiency, ignorance and knowledge. And in an age before widespread government social services, those saving hands belonged mostly to charity and volunteer groups and, not coincidentally, women. In her new book, How Women Saved the City, Daphne Spain shows how women who were excluded from most forms of public life nevertheless volunteered, became reformers and activists and laid the social framework for modern city life.

An urban scholar at the University of Virginia who has written extensively on women and cities, Spain posits that, while men were building skyscrapers and running governments, reform-minded activist women were architects in their own right–architects of society, who housed, educated, socialized and uplifted largely neglected urban masses.

Spain focuses her study on four volunteer organizations in New York, Boston and Chicago. Two groups–the YWCA and the Salvation Army–are now household names, but Spain reclaims their activist origins from popular notions of swimming pools and used furniture. Her other two subjects–the College Settlements Association and the National Association of Colored Women–are less familiar. The CSA brought educated women together to learn social work in urban boarding houses as they served their impoverished communities. The NACW grew in response to the racism of volunteer groups like the YWCA, which ministered to whites only.

Spain points to the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 as the turning point in the urban reform movement. First, the model city complex designed by Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmstead established the notion of a new American experience that was specifically urban. The “White City” drew 500,000 visitors.

But true to its name, the homage hardly reflected the realities of urban life. The White City had no dirt or sewers in the street, nor did it have women or blacks trying to scrape together a living. The whitewashing prompted black activist Ida B. Wells to publish The Reason Why the Black American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition. Spain credits the 81-page pamphlet with sowing the seeds for the National Association of Colored Women, and finds a second, no less important effect of the expo: the energizing and coalescing of a black women’s volunteer-activist movement.

And in fact, there was diversity among these women who made careers out of helping. The founder of New York’s White Rose Mission, where newly arrived black women could get advice, temporary housing and even employment, was Victoria Earle Matthews, a former slave who went on to pen articles for the New York Times and the Brooklyn Eagle. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Boston socialite Mary Morton Kehew led the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union and campaigned vigorously for public bathhouses, health clinics, employment bureaus and lunch kitchens in Boston’s gritty South End.

With depictions of streets clogged with garbage and dead animals, Spain’s tale is rich in detail, but the atmosphere never quite adds up to social context. We learn about the prevailing philosophies of volunteerism, but there’s scant indication of how such work was received, either by the public or by the male-dominated power structure. In spite of intriguing material like Wells, Kehew and Matthews and lots of good reporting, Spain’s dry, academic writing ultimately makes for a pretty dull read.

Still, the historian Spain has done her job: She proves how women-led groups were the first to successfully and comprehensively address social problems of housing and education in cities, and even paved the way for the social spending programs of the New Deal and beyond, as government co-opted their mission. Today we’re seeing governments embrace volunteerism and faith-based social services as viable alternatives to civil services, resuscitating the principles of Spain’s activists. And when the author admits that the problems of 1900 still plague modern cities–how to deal with newcomers and issues of poverty, race and class–she begs the question, How is this work relevant? As history repeats itself, the importance of making successful public volunteer efforts germane to contemporary activists is evident and would have been useful. Though How Women Saved the Cities is an informative scholarly work, the reader is left wishing the author had been a fraction as concerned with the future as her subjects.

Keith Meatto is a staff writer for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.