The sisters who sparked SSA

In its centennial year, the school celebrates the Abbotts’ deep legacy

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.

Activists from the Start

The Abbotts did their graduate studies at Chicago, where they attracted the attention and admiration of activist Sophonisba Breckinridge. The first female graduate of the University’s Law School, Breckinridge helped professionalize the field of social welfare and contributed to the development of curriculum of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy (now SSA) by introducing the case method.

By 1908, the sisters lived at Jane Addams’ Hull House. Not only was the settlement house dedicated to improving living conditions for the poor, but Hull House pioneers helped establish the first juvenile court in Cook County.

Both worked with legislators and government officials at the highest levels. They also exchanged letters with great thinkers such as the African-American scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois and Nebraska author Willa Cather. Both sisters participated in the women’s suffrage parade to the 1916 Republican National Convention. Addams would often be heard calling out, “I need an Abbott to make a suffrage speech,” as she climbed the Hull House stairs, according to the Abbott biographer Lela Costin.

Grace went on to be named head of the Immigrants Protective League and was even asked to lead Hull House when Addams died.

Lifetime of Accomplishment

While the Abbotts worked with the first wave of immigrants to Chicago in the early 20th century, their ideals live on today in the work of SSA’s faculty, students, and alumni. A spirit of broad-based, trans-discplinary collaboration makes SSA effective, Marsh wrote in her afterward of the Grace Abbott Reader, a recently published collection of writings:

“The Abbott sisters, with their mutual concerns and from their respective platforms, shared resources, ideas, and ideals. If, for instance, an SSA student came up with a particularly incisive research question, Dean Abbott in Chicago would often make the question known to Chief Abbott in Washington, D.C.—for the Children’s Bureau might be able to support the study and then put the findings to work shaping national policy. Similarly, if a serious problem at the Children’s Bureau rose, Grace Abbott might seek out, via her sister Edith at SSA, the best researchers to track down its cause.”

The Abbotts would smile if they knew that at any given time, more than 400 graduate students in SSA are working with students, immigrants, and underprivileged people in need of counseling and other help. What inspired the Abbotts as social workers, public administrators, educators, and reformers—and what motivates their successors today.