The Maimie Papers - Maimie Pinzer, Sue Davidson, Ruth Rosen
I've been really attracted by this book. It's better than a novel; the letter format gives immediacy, and there's a real sense that Maimie (an actual person) is saying what's on her mind.

One thing that struck me was the passages where Maimie discusses her reluctance to take charity from people who regard it as their "work". Although she is put off by the condescending attitude of the religiously-motivated philanthropists, their feeling that they can dictate how she should dress and when she ought to pray; although it is obvious that they have no conception of the economic reality that she lives, and nonetheless they think they ought to criticize every penny she spends; the real crux of the problem is that she does not want to take assistance from someone unless that person is doing it because they want to help her, her personally, and that is rare. It seems that Mrs. Howe is the only actual friend Maimie has in the world (and she is religiously agnostic). At one point, it appeared that though Mr. Welsh seemed friendly at first, he was just better at seeming than most philanthropists. She was just a "project" to be "saved" for him, as indicated (among other things) by his reading her private letters to other people -- to demonstrate the "work" he was doing.

Overall, the theme I've taken away from reading the first half of the book is that above all, Maimie is seeking independence. Money is important to escape from hunger, cold, and squalor, but she needs to be able to support herself, not as someone's wife, mistress, or charity recipient. That's something that most of the people she encounters plainly don't understand; they assume that a woman should be dependent on family or husband (and assume that she has these! illicit relationships not allowed!). Some of Maimie's early letters have a tone of sheer desperation, but she is able to clearly lay out just how few options she has. Anyone who doubts that a woman needs to have an independent income with fair wages has to read what it's like to live without it.