Edith Abbott (1876-1957) – Social Reformer, Author, Administrator and Educator
by John Sorensen, Founding Director of the Abbott Sisters Project
Edith Abbott was born in Grand Island, Nebraska to active, civic minded parents. Her mother was an abolitionist and women’s suffrage leader and her father was the first Lieutenant Governor of Nebraska. Her sister, Grace, was born two years later and their lives were intertwined with mutual interests and involvement in public welfare and federal and state responsibilities involving social problems.
Edith Abbott was among the most important Americans who were involved in the establishment of social work as a profession — a profession akin to those of law, medicine, and theology, requiring not merely the “good intentions” of its practitioners, but a scrupulous intellectual education and rigorous practical training.
As the first woman in U.S. history to become the dean of a major American university graduate school (University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration), Edith Abbott prepared several generations of social servants to assume what she called “the grave responsibility of interfering with the lives of human beings.” She did this work at a time when there was still intense public debate as to whether or not women should even be permitted to vote.
Edith Abbott began her career as a teacher in her Grand Island, Nebraska, hometown high school at the age of sixteen, while continuing her own studies at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. During her university days she formed a friendship with the writer Willa Cather that continued throughout the women’s lives. Miss Abbott wrote the senior class play in her graduating year (1901) and then moved on to continue her studies at the University of Chicago.
In 1906 Edith Abbott, having earned a Ph.D. in economics, was awarded with a trip to England, where she lived in a settlement house and came in contact with the famed socialists Beatrice and Sidney Webb of the Fabian Society. Miss Abbott’s successful studies in London led to a teaching post at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and soon thereafter the opportunity to return to Chicago to become a resident of Jane Addams’ Hull House.
Edith Abbott’s first book, the influential Women in Industry, was published in 1910. It was at about this same time that she joined the faculty of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. She was a key figure in the 1920 effort to move this institution of social work training to the University of Chicago, where it was renamed the School of Social Service Administration. Miss Abbott thereby led “S.S.A.,” as it was known, to become one of the first programs of social work — perhaps the very first — at a great U.S. university. She became dean of the school in 1924.
For many years, through the Great Depression, Edith Abbott worked closely with her sister Grace to combat a wide array of social ills, from the mistreatment of immigrants to the abuses of child labor. The Abbott sisters formed a complementary team with each providing an invaluable and unique service: one more theoretical, the other more pragmatic. As Edith Abbott put it, “I could assemble the facts and write the report, but Grace had the gift of applying the proper legislative remedy.”
Edith Abbott continued to publish important books on immigration, the tenements of Chicago, American pioneers in social welfare, and the philosophy of social welfare education. She was the co-founder in 1927 of the renowned publication Social Service Review and was also its longtime editor; she was named president of the American Association of Schools of Social Work from 1925 to 1927; she was appointed to the Wickersham Commission (National Committee on Law Enforcement and Observance) in the late 1920s; and was the president of the National Conference of Social Welfare in 1937.
In 1942 Edith Abbott retired from her position as dean of the School of Social Service Administration. She served as dean emeritus and continued teaching until 1952, when she returned to her hometown, where the city library was later named in her honor.
At the time of Edith Abbott’s death in 1957, Wayne McMillen of Social Service Review wrote, “History will include her name among the handful of leaders who have made enduring contributions to the field of education. Social work has now taken its place as an established profession. She, more than any other one person, gave direction to the education required for that profession. Posterity will not forget achievements such as these.”
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