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The Women Who Forged SSA

"Their contributions to social welfare can be summarized under three main headings: contributions to professional education, the direct contributions to the social services in Chicago and elsewhere, and their research into social problems. They all served one purpose, the improvement of the welfare program so that the disadvantaged in our community might have richer lives."
- Helen Wright
Dean, University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration

At a time when women held little power in our society, Sophonisba Breckenridge and Edith and Grace Abbott were true pioneers. SSA and the field of social work itself owe an enormous debt of gratitude to their extraordinary talent, determination, and clarity of vision.

Sophonisba Breckenridge

Graduating from Wellesley in 1888, Sophonisba Breckinridge accepted a job teaching high school mathematics. When that post proved unfulfilling, she chose to study law and became the first woman admitted to the Kentucky Bar. Finding few opportunities for women in the legal field, she enrolled in the Political Science and Economy graduate program at the new University of Chicago. She became the first woman to earn a doctorate degree from that program as well as a doctor of law degree at Chicago.

Unwelcome in the traditionally male-dominated departments of the University, Breckinridge took a position with the Department of Household Administration, an area defined as a woman's field. Impressing Julia Lathrop with her academic acumen and fervor for reform, she was quickly tapped to serve as the assistant in the research division of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy.

She quickly set out to reshape social work education, arguing for an emphasis on public responsibility over private largess and rigorous, systematic training for practitioners. As acting president of the School in 1920, she spearheaded merger negotiations with the University. She remained at the University as an active, much venerated professor until her retirement in 1942.

Edith Abbott

Edith Abbott was recruited to the School in 1908, just prior to its incarnation as the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. Her work paved the way for the School's merger into the University of Chicago, and in 1924, she became its Dean--the first female dean of any graduate school in the United States. Abbott served as dean until 1942. During this time, she and the School emphasized the importance of formal education in social work and the need to include field experience as part of that training.

These years were also a time when SSA was intimately connected to federal legislation in such areas as child welfare, the labor movement, and immigration issues. Her sister, Grace Abbott served as chief of the U.S. Children's Bureau in Washington D.C. She ensured that legislative policy-making in these areas incorporated the research being done at SSA, and helped to provide federal support for this kind of research and social statistics at the School and elsewhere. Edith Abbott retired in 1942.

Grace Abbott

In 1907, Grace Abbott entered graduate study in political science and constitutional history at the University of Chicago, earning her Ph.M. in 1909. Her growing interest in social work led her to take up residency at Jane Addams' Hull House in 1908. That same year, she became director of the Immigrants' Protective League, organized to protect immigrants from exploitation and to help them adjust to American life. She held this position until 1917 while also teaching at the University of Chicago and the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy.

In 1917, Abbott accepted a position as director of the Industrial Division of the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor, where she was responsible for developing enforcement plans for the first federal child labor laws enacted by Congress in 1916.

She returned to Chicago in 1919 to serve as executive secretary of the Illinois State Immigrants Commission and then as chair of the child labor section, Illinois State Children's Commission. Then, in 1921, she again left for Washington as chief of the U.S. Children's Bureau. Her numerous accomplishments include the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act into law, providing for the first federal grants-in-aid for social welfare purposes and authorized government cooperation with the states in promoting maternal and child health.

Abbott was also responsible for incorporating social statistics and research into legislative policy-making. Her leadership led to the funding of over 100 social research investigations and their publication, these usually undertaken by the School of Social Service Administration. In 1929, in response to the Depression, she became the foremost advocate for federal aid for relief. She was responsible for collecting and distributing, to national agencies, relief reports from 203 cities.

From 1934 until her death in 1939, Grace held a professorship at SSA and served as editor of the Social Service Review. She remained active during these years, serving on President Roosevelt's council on economic security and helping to draft the Social Security Act. She continued to chair international labor conferences and state committees dealing with child labor, and to serve in many efforts including the peace movement and women's rights.