Good Housekeeping magazine ran a contest in 1930 called “America’s Twelve Greatest Women.” The magazine offered $5,000 in prizes to readers who helped nominate living American women of distinction.
When the survey results were compiled, Grace Abbott, one of SSA’s founders, was named “the fifth most distinguished American woman.”
It was a title not easily earned, with Ms. Abbott surpassing such prominent figures as former first lady Grace Coolidge and renowned scientist Florence Sabin. She beat out writer Edna St. Vincent Millay and aviatrix Amelia Earhart. Not even Eleanor Roosevelt and her early accomplishments moved ahead of Abbott to enter the magazine’s top five.
One of the twelve women was featured each month during 1931. Grace Abbott’s story was featured in the May issue. A complete list appears at the end of this story. This article was republished with permission.
America’s Twelve Greatest Women
Who Knows – and Cares – More About Our 43,000,000 Children Than Anyone Else in the United States
By Alice Booth
It was almost spring in Washington, March winds were whipping around corners, snatching at hats and papers. Flower wagons bloomed in the streets – Washington’s own special flower wagons – pushcarts filled with fat bouquets of yellow jonquils, tulips pink and white and golden, rosy snapdragons, and thick sheaves of pussy willows fresh from the lowlands. The Washington Monument seemed to pierce the gray ether and let down a flood of pale yellow sunlight on the white beauty of the Capitol.
Little knots of sightseers hurried in the lower entrance under the great mountain of snowy steps, jammed the elevators, stood in line waiting for a place in the packed galleries to look down upon the Senate at its work.
I had seen it before, many times, but never with any one to whom it meant anything. Now I had come there to meet a woman to whom it meant everything. A woman who had given ten of the most splendid years of her life to the forty-three million children of the United States – and was asking now only the privilege of giving more. A woman who had twice seen her splendid, vital, essential work stopped – cut short off – by mere abstract things like constitutionality and legislation and law - and was now hoping, praying, for the opportunity to begin again: Grace Abbott, head of the Children’s Bureau.
I found her far down in one of the Senate galleries, leaning forward, her fine eyes intent on the assembly below, listening, waiting, for the new Maternity and Infancy bill -- which would repeat the fine work done by the Sheppard-Towner bill, now out of force two years – to come up. Her smile was as ready, her handclasp as warm, as if we had met at a tea. But there must have been a tumult in her soul. There was only a little time left before the ending of the Seventy-first Congress – so very little time.
The bill had had good luck in the beginning. It had been passed by the Senate, and passed by the House – but in the House had received extensive amendments which necessitated another Senate vote. But this Congress was nearly over, and a filibuster was on its way.
Even now a Senator, holding page after page of a two-inch-thick speech close to his eyes, was delivering an oration in praise of his political party. He orated, he sobbed and sighed, his voice broke on the high notes. With his free hand he made appropriate gestures. Only one Senator faced him and appeared to be listening to him. A dozen or so others read or wrote at their desks. At the back of the Senate Chambers little groups talked incessantly. Again and again the clack of the Vice-President’s gavel demanded quiet – quiet in the Senate.
They were killing time – killing other things, too – the thousands of mothers and babies who died each year before the Sheppard-Towner bill was passed; and who died last year – and who will die this year and all future years, without the service it offered.
Miss Abbott sat quiet, her fine, strong hands clasped – as the turgid floor of oratory went on and on. When it was done, another Senator began to talk about a bridge.
After two hours, I was impatient. After two years, Grace Abbott was still serene.
She said once, “There isn’t much time left.”
She said later, “Oh, I do hope they let it come to a vote.”
Simple words. None of the impassioned emotion of the man who ranted to an unhearing, unseeing audience. But just a little, almost unheard quiver of feeling in the tone – the feeling of a woman capable of fine, devoted, heroic effort, denied the right to make that effort. The feeling of a woman who sees men, whom we send to Washington to take care of us and our children, refusing the privilege for which she would give – literally – all the rest of her life.
Later – much later – we went back to her office in the Children’s Bureau. There was still one more day left before the closing of the Session, and there was still hope that the bill might pass – but not much hope. And Grace Abbott said something that gave the whole measure of the woman in a few confident words:
“If the bill doesn’t pass this year, it will pass next,” she said. “People everywhere – more and more of them – are learning that this work for mothers and babies should be done. It is only a matter of time until all the people know it.”
Faith in the future – faith in the ultimate progress and fineness of humanity. More than faith – certainty! Neither doubt nor fear, but patience, and the deathless will to work while waiting – that is Grace Abbott. She still believes that this world about her will some day accept her vision; she asks of the world only the privilege of working in the service of that vision; and in victory and defeat she still goes on working.
That a large part of the world appreciates the value of that work was proved last November, when the election of Secretary James J. Davis to the Senate was soon to cause a vacancy in the Cabinet. From all over the country, from prominent educators, sociologists, economists, business men, letters came to the White House urging the appointment of Grace Abbott to the Secretary of Labor. Never before has there been a demand from men as well as women that a woman should be given a place in the Cabinet.
Back in her office, in the Children’s Bureau, I thought again, as I had thought of the first time I saw a picture of her father, of the amazing likeness between them. She has in her face the superb idealism, the resolution, the courage, the fighting spirit of that pioneer who drove a covered wagon into the village of Grand Island, Nebraska, in 1867, and helped make it the city it is today. That pioneer father fought the blizzards, and the sandy soil, and the drought; grasshoppers swept the section bare of any trace of green; and each time his world fell about him, he built it up anew.
Built it to such good purposes that by the time his third child, Grace, was ready for college, Grand Island, originally a only a scatter of half a dozen houses and a combination general store and post-office, had a college of its own, from which she graduated before going to the University of Nebraska for special study in economics and political science.
The Abbotts have always been a considerable distance ahead of the mass mind. They were working for women’s suffrage in the days when it was almost to incur disgrace, in popular opinion. Nebraska’s fine laws to protect the rights of women were in large part due to the work of Grace Abbott’s father, the first lieutenant governor of the state. It is no wonder, with her inheritance, that learning about people soon assumed infinitely more importance than her first project of teaching people, and she went to the University of Chicago for still more study in economics, and to take up law.
Inevitably she was drawn to Hull House and in residence there, as director of the Immigrant’s Protective League, she completed her first important commission, survey of the problems and the possibilities of the foreign-born. Just a girl, fresh from college, she was thrown into the midst of one of the most congested districts in our country, to deal with every phase of people geared to an old-world civilization, tossed into the midst of the machine age.
She always intended to go back to teach school, she told me, but there was always something she felt she must finish, first. I wonder if right then she did not realize that here was something that would never be finished. For Massachusetts sent for her to investigate for that state the problems of immigration adjustment, employment, and housing conditions, while acting as executive secretary of the State Immigration Commission. And then Illinois asked her to carry out similar work.
Always was she learning. No problem is peculiar to one state, but to all states, to all countries, phrased in different form. Wherever she went there was poverty, and child labor, and delinquency, and misunderstanding, and illiteracy, and maladjustment, and illness. But there were other things too. Things that cause Miss Abbott to say today:
“The only permanent and final way to elevate the condition of the child is to elevate the family. Whatever the family has is passed on to the child. People love their children; whatever they have to give they give to their children; and if we want the children to have more, we need only see that the parents have more. We can depend on them to distribute it.”
In 1917 Grace Abbott came to Washington with a commission larger than anything that had yet come to her. Previously, she had worked for and with states. Now she was working for and with the nation, to enforce the first Federal Child Labor Law, forbidding products of child labor to be transported in interstate commerce. No work could have been closer to her heart. In Massachusetts and in Illinois she had encountered at first hand the terrible results crushing the spirit of childhood into an iron cage of restraint. Now she was to do for all children in America what she had longed to do for those of a state…
And then came the first of her great defeats. The law which she had spent herself, heart and soul, to enforce was declared unconstitutional. And the law which followed it was wiped out with a similar verdict.
But again an opportunity came to her. President Harding appointed her head of the Children’s Bureau, and almost simultaneously the Sheppard-Towner bill, which coordinated State and Federal aid to promote the health of mothers and children, was passed. Upon the Bureau fell the colossal task of carrying out the provisions of the Sheppard-Towner Act. From that little white frame building on the corner of 20th and D Streets went bulletins to every section of the United States – bulletins that had to be written, put into print and mailed, without ever stopping the regular work of the Bureau in constantly checking, filing, and coordinating every possible variety of information from all over the world on children and child care.
The Bureau is the greatest filing cabinet of information on the child that we have in the United States today. Which makes it even more a disgrace to us as a nation that went the flimsy shack which housed it burned down last summer, with its incalculably valuable records, the Bureau moved next door to another flimsy building exactly like the first, and began its work all over again.
Miss Abbott is a busy woman. In just one month of 1930, 50,000 copies of her bulletin on “Infant Care” were mailed out in response to requests. But in spite of the endless detail of her days, and the demands of organization, and the actual writing of bulletins summing up her own research among the children of the world, she has found time for one little girl in particular. From the time her little motherless niece was seven, she has found a home in Grace Abbott’s heart and in her house. When it comes to taking care of children in the wisest and best way, Grace Abbott is as successful with the individual as with the mass.
Perhaps it is through the inspiration of this personal, intimate contact with the world of helpless childhood that Grace Abbott’s newest vision has come to her, a vision of new services to those who can not serve themselves. A provision for aid for the children in times like these when unemployment starves and freezes them and leaves its imprint upon them in ill health, in susceptibility to disease, through all their after life.
Let Grace Abbott speak to you as she spoke before the Child Health Conference at the White House on unemployment and the child.
“Of course you know and I know that everybody who is unemployed suffers during a period of unemployment, but we also know that those who suffer most are the children of the unemployed, because of course the conditions are such that the period when they should have the things that they need this year passes with this year. You can’t feed children skimmed milk this year and make up by feeding them cream next year. What they didn’t get this year you can never make up to them, and there are great numbers of children all over the country who are not getting even skimmed milk this year. In the files of the Children’s Bureau we have record after record of that kind of family.
“What does it do to children? It sends them into manhood and womanhood more subject to tuberculosis, more subject to other disease, than they otherwise would be; but it also does something else to them when they live day by day without knowing what tomorrow is to bring forth. Children need not only food and a comfortable home, but they need above all things security, and there are many children tonight who have not known security in their homes for over a year.
“There are many families that will not be taken care of by charity this winter, whose standards have gone steadily down. First the payments on the home stopped, and then the home went, and then the furniture went, and then the credit was exhausted at the grocery store, and then the family moved in with another family, and they shared as they could – but there was almost nothing at all to share.
“You can never make up to those children for that. They are permanently marred by the experience they are having this year…
“Employment is, of course, the only cure for unemployment. But, unable to cure, we can prevent the demoralizing effects of unemployment on the health and general welfare of children, if we organize to do it. Great efforts have been made by public and private local relief agencies to prevent just that from happening. But no one who is responsible for the administration of relief would say we had succeeded in preventing wide-spread suffering among children during the past year.
“Some communities have refused to face the extent of the need, and others – mining towns and small industrial communities, for example, where the resources are in inverse ratio to the need – have been entirely unable to carry alone the load of dependency which has resulted from national or international causes. These are the same communities which in normal times are unable to provide good schools, adequate health services, or proper care for dependent and delinquent children.
“In their educational programs many states have faced the local community inequalities from which children suffer by providing what are called state equalization funds. The need and the assistance which the state gives can be made concrete.
“Here is County A which, when it levies the same tax for its services for children as does County B, gets only one-fourth the amount necessary for providing reasonably good schools for its children, while B gets three or four times the necessary minimum by the same sacrifice in the form of taxes. If there were state equalization, County A would get a contribution from funds secured by state-wide taxation which would insure the maintenance of what had been determined should be the minimum state standards, while County B would get nothing. Even so, the schools in County B would be much better than those in County A, but all the children of the state would have reasonably good educational opportunities.
“But providing schools for hungry children is not enough. The same principle of equalization as between communities should insure reasonable care for hungry children every place and reasonably adequate health and social services.
“I do not expect that equal opportunities will be provided for American children, but I do expect that a reasonably high minimum of opportunity will be made possible. That means pleasant homes, good food, and affectionate care as well as good schools. It means that while parents should be able to provide the necessities during normal times, under abnormal conditions the state – and if necessary to equalize the burdens which abnormal conditions bring, the nation – will cooperate in insuring this reasonable minimum for American children.”
Here is a vision. In a few years – in your lifetime and mine – you are going to see it become a reality. Because, although humanity is slow to action, it is quick to accept an ideal – and once the ideal is accepted all things work inexorably to its execution.
If you doubt it, think back to 1912 – when only two states had mothers’ pension laws, and only one a bureau of child health, and only twenty-three had juvenile court laws. We take them for granted now – but in 1912 they were revolutionary and people were still having to be told about them.
If I wanted to be really sure of what fine, benevolent things the world will do in the next twenty years, I should try to find out what Grace Abbott wants. For her dreams are the kind that come true.
The twelve winners of the “America’s Twelve Greatest Women” contest were:
January: Jane Addams
February: Ernestine Schumann-Heink
March: Mary E. Woolley
April: Helen Keller
May: Grace Abbott
June: Florence Rena Sabin
July: Grace Coolidge
August: Martha Berry
September: Willa Cather
October: Carrie Chapman Catt
November: Minnie Maddern Fiske
December: Cecilia Beaux