Two Remarkable Women

Scholar Edith Abbott and organizer Grace Abbott improved lives for disadvantaged

(This article appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of SSA Magazine.)

As a social worker at Hull House, GraceTwo Remarkable Women Abbott became well aware of the struggles of immigrants, who arrived in Chicago looking for relatives and often met exploitation instead. That awareness led to the founding of the Immigrants' Protective League, which she directed and that shared space with the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. Her equally talented sister Edith, who received a PhD in Economics from the University in 1905, helped lead the school.

Edith Abbott's work there paved the way for the school's merger into the University of Chicago as the School of Social Service Administration, and in 1924, she became its dean—the first female dean of any graduate school in the United States. She felt that, in order for social work to become a profession, social work education should be conducted at the graduate level, under the sponsorship of a university.

Edith Abbott was co-founder and long time editor of the influential Social Service Review, which began publishing in 1927.

John Sorensen has edited a new book, A Sister's Memories: The Life and Work of Grace Abbott from the Writings of Her Sister, Edith Abbott, published in September 2015 by the University of Chicago Press. He spoke as part of a panel discussion in October at SSA's alumni reunion, "Grace and Edith Abbott: Two Sisters in Search of Justice," which recognized the University's 125th Anniversary.

While Edith Abbott was a strong voice for promoting education and research in social work, Grace Abbott's strengths were as an effective organizer. She was head of the Immigrants' Protection League from 1908 to 1921. She was chief of the US Children's Bureau from 1921 to 1934 and was called back to Washington from her position on the SSA faculty to help prepare Social Security legislation. She fought against child labor in textile mills and coal mines. She helped bring financial assistance to mothers and infants.

The struggles Edith confronted at the beginning of the 20th Century remain issues today, says Marci Ybarra, assistant professor at SSA, who does research on immigration and immigrant children and was a member of the panel.

"My own work is in line with the tradition of Grace and Edith," she explains. "As a social work scholar, I also think about the immigrant family and the external environment: eligibility and access to safety net programs, the quality of neighborhoods and schools in immigrant enclaves, and access to social networks that might disperse important information on vital resources. Access to these formal and informal supports will ultimately affect family income and children's development.

"Immigrants are a rich part of our history, our present, and our future. The way the social work profession approaches working with and supporting immigrant families has changed since the Abbott era. For instance, the social work profession builds upon the strengths of immigrant communities, including bilingualism and a rich cultural heritage, that the profession seeks to honor and uphold rather than promoting assimilation, as was largely the case at the turn of the last century," she added.

The job of today's social worker is to help immigrant families connect with formal and informal resources so that they can achieve their goals. Equitable access to supports ensure that immigrant families can thrive here. These are goals the Abbotts shared.

— William Harms