Edith and Grace Abbott are hardly household names anymore, but their work continues to shape the University and social work around the world.
From helping draft portions of the Social Security Act to enforcing child labor laws to fighting for low-income working mothers, the Abbott sisters promoted the idea that government should take an active role in preserving social welfare. They were involved in the Settlement House movement and fought for women’s right to vote.
Edith was also instrumental in developing the first PhD program in social work in the United States and was the first female dean of an American graduate school, while Grace was a highly visible government figure who, in 1931, was named No. 5 in Good Housekeeping magazine’s “America’s Twelve Greatest Women.”
During the beginning of the last century, they were responsible for the formation of the University’s School of Social Service Administration and the professionalization of the social work profession.
Since then, the Abbotts have “gone quietly into history,” says Steve Fosselman, director of the Edith Abbott Memorial Library in the sisters’ hometown of Grand Island, Neb., where each fall, schoolgirls hold a Victorian tea party in Edith’s honor.
The sisters’ legacy lives on in Chicago students who apply intellectual rigor to their social work studies. To mark its centennial anniversary, SSA recently welcomed back hundreds of friends, faculty, and distinguished alumni to a celebration and symposia at its renovated Mies van der Rohe–designed building.
From Principle to Practice
The Abbotts strongly believed that social investigation was a way to solve problems that were unfair or in need of social reform. They were among the first to use evidence-based practice—the use of theory to guide questioning, to ask clear questions based on what we do know—and critical analysis, using statistics or logic, to come up with the answer.
“What SSA tries to do—and this reflects the legacy of our founders—is to teach students the importance of the connections between theory, evidence, and practice,” says Julie Henly, Associate Professor in SSA. Jeanne Marsh, Dean of SSA, added that “a commitment to research and knowledge development as part of the profession is their legacy,” she says.
Gradually, the sisters’ careers took different paths: Edith devoted herself to teaching and research at the University, and Grace continued to fight for children’s and women’s health care. Both worked with legislators and government officials at the highest levels.
While Edith played an important role in the development of SSA—she was the first female dean of the School of Social Research (1924–42)—Grace was on the front lines of social justice causes. Grace served as Chief of the Children’s Bureau, on the League of Nations’ advisory committee on child welfare, and was appointed to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Committee on Economic Security, for which she helped draft titles IV and V of the Social Security Act. She also was asked (but declined) to be the first head of the League of Women Voters.