Edith Abbott (1876–1957) and Grace Abbott (1878–1939)

Two Midwestern sisters who helped define modern social work.

By Carrie M. Golus, AB’91, AM’93

Image courtesy Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

If you’re destitute, it’s at least partly your fault. At the end of the 19th century, that attitude was a common one: people needed charity because of a personal failing.

Edith and Grace Abbott, two early and influential figures in the field of social work, fought against this tendency—still widespread today—to blame those in need for their own plight. As young women living at Jane Addams’s Hull House settlement, the sisters worked with the massive influx of European immigrants to Chicago. To the Abbotts these people were not inadequate or helpless—simply discriminated against. The sisters’ solution to the so-called “immigrant problem” was to help the new arrivals help themselves.

Edith Abbott, PhD 1905, went on to become the first dean of the School of Social Service Administration, which celebrates its centenary this year. Grace Abbott, PhM 1909, went to Washington, DC, and the Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureau. Edith was the scholar, Grace the activist and administrator. Yet they worked closely together throughout their careers, and their shared philosophy echoes so strongly through their writings that they often seem to speak with one voice.

Photo On matters of social policy, Edith (left) and Grace Abbott saw eye to eye.

That voice ran in the family. The sisters grew up in Grand Island, Nebraska. Their mother, Elizabeth, was a suffragist—with the full support of their father, Othman, a successful lawyer and the state’s first lieutenant governor. The Abbotts valued education and progress; in 1893, despite an economy that brought the family to the brink of bankruptcy, Elizabeth, Edith, and Grace attended the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Edith’s clearest memory was seeing the beginnings of the University along the Midway.

But Edith had to defer her dream of college, turning instead to one profession wide open to women: teaching. A high-school teacher at age 16, she was expected to cover algebra, geometry, English, history, and Latin; with Grace’s help, she crammed furiously the night before each teaching day, later summing up her frustration: “It took as much energy to keep from crying as it would have to run a steam engine.”

As times improved, Edith and Grace both attended college, Edith earning her degree from the University of Nebraska and Grace from Grand Island Baptist College, before graduate study at Chicago, where they chose unlikely subjects for women: Edith economics, Grace law.

Soon after Edith finished her PhD—her dissertation on the wages of unskilled laborers in the United States was published in the Journal of Political Economy—she won two fellowships that allowed her to do postdoctoral work at the London School of Economics. In London she attended suffragist marches, spent time at an East End settlement house, and took an interest in the people behind the statistics of her earlier research. She also took up smoking.

By 1908 both sisters lived at Hull House. The West Side, Edith recalled, was a “vast city wilderness” of filthy streets and tenements that were “beyond description.”

Edith had given up a job teaching economics at Wellesley College to become assistant director of research at the new Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, reporting to another Hull House resident, Sophonisba Breckenridge, PhD 1901, JD 1904. The school was an untested institution with tenuous financing. But at a time when social work was often poorly planned or simply ineffective, Edith relished the chance to make rigorous research an integral part of social-work education.

Meanwhile, Grace suspended graduate studies to head the newly formed Immigrants’ Protective League, where she tried to prevent unscrupulous employment agencies, banks, lawyers, and landlords from exploiting immigrants. Grace, who had once considered becoming a lawyer like her father, particularly enjoyed appearing before the County Bar Association to try to disbar disreputable lawyers. As unconventional as her sister, Grace toured Europe alone in 1911, hoping to get a clearer understanding of why immigrants would risk so much to come to America. She was deeply impressed by the faith that working-class Europeans professed in the idea that in America, life could be better.

When immigration slowed during World War I Grace took a job with the Children’s Bureau, where she was in charge of enforcing new child-labor laws. The then-controversial legislation was modest by today’s standards: factory workers, for example, had to be at least 14 and could not work more than eight hours a day, six days a week. Southern states in particular fought the laws, and Grace fought just as hard to bring them into compliance. Named bureau head in 1921, she helped administer legislation to reduce infant and maternal mortality—laws opposed by the American Medical Association, among other groups, because of the fear of socialized medicine.

Meanwhile in Chicago, Edith and Breckenridge helped oversee the Chicago School of Philanthropy’s 1920 transfer to the University. Renamed the School of Social Service Administration, it became the first university-based graduate school of social work. At the time, many universities were hesitant to embrace social work, a field dominated by women, while social workers were skeptical of an academic rather than practical approach. Edith disregarded both criticisms, certain that social work belonged alongside Chicago’s other professional schools of law, medicine, and divinity. President Harry Pratt Judson must have shared her confidence; in 1924, after the school’s four-year trial period, Edith became the SSA’s first dean. The curriculum she devised—a broad background in economics, statistics, government, legislation, and history—set the standard for social-work curricula today.

Neither Edith nor Grace married. In an era when family responsibilities made a career almost impossible, many ambitious women had to make a choice. The Abbotts were occasionally mocked for their single status. One senator, arguing against the infant-mortality legislation, ridiculed Grace and the other women of the Children’s Bureau as “female celibates…women too refined to have a husband.” He even suggested that a committee of mothers help the “old maids” find husbands and have babies of their own. Edith, in fact, actively disapproved of women students who chose to marry, fearing a loss to the profession. In an often-repeated story, Edith gave one student a wedding “gift”: an enormous pile of statistics to correlate on her honeymoon.

In 1934 Grace resigned from the Children’s Bureau and accepted a less demanding position as professor of public welfare at the SSA. She had long struggled with poor health, twice taking leaves of absence from the Children’s Bureau to recuperate from tuberculosis. She and Edith moved into a large house on Woodlawn Avenue that met her physician’s conditions: close to work and with a screened porch for sleeping.

Addams had hoped that Grace would take over as the head of Hull House; Grace, although flattered, declined. She continued to be active in Washington, serving on the President’s Council on Economic Security in 1934 and 1935 as the Social Security Act was being planned.

In 1938 Grace learned that she had multiple myeloma. Cancer was considered such a dread disease that the sisters tried to hide the diagnosis. When she died the next year at age 60, the New York Times listed the cause of death as anemia. Devastated by the loss of her sister and closest colleague, for a long while Edith would not allow anything in Grace’s room to be touched.

Edith retired as dean of the SSA in 1942, though she continued to teach and edit the academic journal Social Service Review. In her old age she moved back to her family home in Grand Island, where she died in 1957.

Together Edith and Grace Abbott made an enormous contribution to establishing the comprehensive social-welfare programs—administered by trained, competent professionals—that Americans take for granted today. It was not easy. In a tribute to Grace, Edith recalled her sister telling her students that in social work, the road to success was uphill all the way: “The social worker, she thought, should accept this as a way of life.”

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