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Grace Abbott: Social Work Pioneer

Premiere: 3/11/2020 | 00:09:04 |

Grace Abbott (1878-1939), an architect of social work and an activist in the immigrant rights movement, was the highest ranking woman in government from 1921 to 1934 as chief of the Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureau. She led the fight to end child labor and maternal and infant childbirth death, and also helped draft America's Social Security Act.

About the Episode

Grace Abbott (1878-1939), an architect of social work and an activist in the immigrant rights movement, was the highest ranking woman in government from 1921 to 1934 as chief of the Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureau. She led the fight to end child labor and maternal and infant childbirth death, and also helped draft America’s Social Security Act. UNLADYLIKE2020 brings her vision and story of social good back to life through rare archival imagery, captivating original artwork and animation.

Interviewees: scholar John Sorensen, Director of the Abbott Sisters Project and editor of A Sister’s Memories: The Life and Work of Grace Abbott from the Writings of Her Sister, Edith Abbott, and Cristina Jiménez, immigrant rights activist, co-founder and executive director of United We Dream.

Free digital classroom resources about Grace Abbott are available on PBS LearningMedia.




Grace Abbott's achievements are primarily in three fields; children's rights, immigrants rights, women's rights.

She accomplished more than many presidents have in their whole career.

1917 Appalachian mountains.

Grace Abbot was inspecting coal mines in West Virginia.

As head of the Federal Child Labor Division, her mission was to enforce a new law to keep children under 16 out of dangerous work environments.

I learned of a very tragic accident that had happened that very day.

A boy under fourteen had been killed while working in one of the mines.

Children were working in factories and coal mines. The factory owners, didn't have to pay them as much. Their fingers were smaller.

So there were certain things in factories that kids could do that an adult couldn't do.

And that is still an era where it's really not respected that children have rights.

Abbott's efforts to end child labor were met with staunch opposition from families who relied on their children's earnings, and business owners who relied on their cheap labor.

Grace's achievement was a general societal recognition that children are citizens, and that entitles them to certain basic rights such as education and health, and so forth.

Justice for all children is the high ideal in a democracy.

We must emancipate children from the industrial load that was put upon their shoulders.

Grace Abbott was born in 1878 in Grand Island, Nebraska, into a Quaker family of activists.

Her father was the only lawyer in town.

He had been a soldier in the Union army and an abolitionist.

The mother was a very important leader in the suffrage movement.

She was friends with Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, both of whom stayed in the Abbott's house.

My mother would say to my sister, Edith and me, 'Even if you are little girls, you can be suffragists too because it is right and just.'

After graduating from college in 1898, Abbott taught high school in her hometown.

When Grace was still in Nebraska, living at her parents' home, she was taking correspondence classes in history, in political science, and so forth. Clearly she was aspiring to something.

I always was happy in Nebraska, but there isn't much opportunity for a girl in a small city, and it seemed inevitable that I leave.

In 1908, at age 29, Abbott left to attend the University of Chicago where she planned to study law.

But she ended up residing at Hull House, cofounded by future Nobel prize winner, Jane Addams.

It was one of the first, among hundreds of 'settlement houses' nationwide, working to address social problems and provide services to new immigrants.

Women in the settlement movement were among the most important Americans involved in the establishment of social work as a profession. Hull House was right there in the middle of an area full of Greek, Italian, Eastern European, Jewish and so forth.

Rotting stables were everywhere and the alleys were indescribably filthy.

The tenements were tiny sordid rooms with no windows, no electricity, no water.

They were beyond description.

Despite the fact that women didn't have the right to vote, they played a critical role in working with immigrants in settlement houses, organizing for the poor, fighting for equal rights in the workplace.

My name is Cristina Jiménez, and I'm a social justice organizer.

United We Dream is the largest network of immigrant youth across the country.

We work towards racial justice and dignity for immigrants and all people of color.

When I think about my own experience growing up undocumented, for me really I became a community organizer to survive in this country.

It was a choice of either fighting for my existence, or to live in the shadows with the fear that you could be detained and deported at any minute.

During a time of widespread anti-immigrant sentiment, Abbott served as director of the Immigrants Protective League from 1908 to 1917.

She defended asylum seekers from deportation, testified in court against the trafficking of women, and lobbied against policies meant to exclude non-English speaking immigrants.

A great means for enriching our national life is lost if we neglect all but the Anglo-Saxon in our population.

In 1921, Abbott became director of the U.S. Children's Bureau, making her the highest ranking woman in government.

By the mere fact of her existence as a woman achieving at that level, she was being a champion of women's rights to prove that a woman could have these jobs and excel at them.

Abbott was instrumental in enforcing a 1921 Maternity and Infancy Act, the first federally funded social welfare program.

The mortality rate in that period was horrifyingly bad.

And part of the Sheppard Towner Act that Grace was focused on, was a raising of public awareness, a public education campaign about the very basics of why are all these babies and women dying in childbirth.

Abbott's programs provided midwife training, opened health care clinics for new mothers and their babies, and advocated for breastfeeding.

But she met with deep opposition in conservative circles.

Grace was attacked violently, verbally, throughout her career.

I mean there are statements off of the floor of the Senate or the House calling her a menopausal maniac or someone with a Mussolini Complex.

But it was not only coming from the men.

There was a group called The Woman Patriots.

Women who were opposed to women having the right to vote. Grace had a lifelong battle with those organizations.

If we sometimes pushed when you did not want us to push, and elbowed our way in when it seemed to you that a lady ought to stay in the background...I can only say we may still have to do some pushing and shoving to get the necessary attention for the needs of women and children.

It makes me think about all of the women within United We Dream that are also challenging and disrupting the status quo every day by marching, by speaking out.

And many may argue that we don't have power because we're not voters.

But yet, just like the women of the Progressive Era, they still shaped the culture the politics and we are doing the same.

Abbott resigned from the Children's Bureau in 1934.

But she continued working on drafts of the Social Security Act until it was passed the following year.

She was the only trained social worker at the top levels of American government at the onset of the Great Depression.

And her work led the way to the creation of the federal emergency relief effort.

Also of the Fair Labor Standards Act to combat child labor and of the Social Security Act, which continues to greatly benefit millions of Americans.

Abbot became editor of the Social Service Review and taught social work at the University of Chicago, where her sister Edith was the first female graduate school dean in the country.

Having never married, they lived together until 1939, when Grace Abbott died from cancer at age 60.

Now only she pushed against the odds and disrupted the status quo, but also starts breaking notions of how far women can go in leadership and how far can you put yourself out there publicly.

Perhaps you may ask: 'Does the road lead uphill all the way?' And I must answer, 'Yes to the very end.' But if I offer you a long, hard struggle, I can also promise you great rewards.


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