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Abbott, Gracelocked

(17 November 1878–19 June 1939)
  • Julie Longo
  •  and Sandra F. VanBurkleo

Grace Abbott

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111723).

Abbott, Grace (17 November 1878–19 June 1939), social worker and administrator, was born in Grand Island, Nebraska, the daughter of Othman Ali Abbott, a lawyer and politician, and Elizabeth Griffin, a high school principal. The Abbott household provided an intellectually stimulating environment, emphasizing reading, discussion, and formal education for all four children. Othman Abbott encouraged both Grace and her older sister Edith Abbott to watch court proceedings and participate in political discussion. Despite unrelenting financial difficulty, Elizabeth Griffin Abbott insisted her daughters receive the best education possible. Raised as a Quaker, Elizabeth was a pacifist as well as an abolitionist. She instilled in her daughters a belief in the equality of men and women and the importance of social justice. In later life Edith Abbott remembered Grace often commenting that the Quaker influence was one of the most important influences in her life.

While the Abbott sisters romanticized their prairie childhood in later years, the harsh realities of daily life in a rural community profoundly shaped them. The continual drought that plagued Nebraska in the 1890s thwarted Othman Abbott’s business investments and frustrated his children’s educational pursuits. Both sisters postponed personal ambitions to help support the family. An eager and popular student, Grace was expected to follow her sister to Brownell Hall, a boarding school in Omaha, but the family could not afford to send her there. Instead Edith took a local teaching position in order to contribute to the family income; Grace attended some of her classes. She continued her education at a small Baptist college in Grand Island and, after graduating in 1898, moved to Broken Bow in Custer County to teach. There she contracted typhoid and returned to Grand Island in the spring to recover. By the fall of 1899 she was well enough to teach again and replaced her sister at the Grand Island High School.

With teaching as the main profession available to women in Grand Island and other prairie communities, the Abbott sisters constantly sought opportunities for advancement. Although family obligations and poverty kept them close to home, both Edith and Grace left Nebraska for brief periods to study. Grace attended the University of Nebraska in 1902–1903 as the only woman enrolled in law classes, but she returned to teaching in Grand Island without graduating. In 1906 Grace followed Edith to the University of Chicago, initially attending a summer session and then enrolling in a full-time program the next year.

At the University of Chicago, Grace Abbott soon came to attract the attention of her professors. Her keen interest in social welfare administration, coupled with her extraordinary understanding of law, impressed Professors Ernst Freund and Sophonisba Breckinridge, both major forces in the Progressive and social reform movements. Chiefly interested in the rights of married women in the United States, Abbott studied political economy, political science, and law in pursuit of a master of philosophy degree in political science; she earned the degree in 1909. Although she was an excellent student by all accounts, she seemed most interested in how abstract ideas could be applied in the world. Edith Abbott explained in her memoirs that Grace preferred her administrative and community work to the life of an academic.

Having arrived in Chicago at the peak of the city’s Progressive reform era, Abbott quickly joined forces with leading figures in the social welfare and settlement movements. She took a position with the Juvenile Protection Association to support her studies, and while she was not particularly happy chasing children from disreputable establishments, the job did allow her to move into Jane Addams’s Hull-House, one of the nation’s leading settlement houses. There she was surrounded by committed social reformers, including Addams, Julia Lathrop, and Florence Kelley. When Edith returned to Chicago in 1908 and joined Grace at Hull-House, the two sisters formed an effective and complementary partnership that endured for more than thirty years.

In 1908 Breckinridge, Freund, and Judge Julian Mack founded the Immigrants’ Protective League, an organization designed to assist and protect recent immigrants, and chose Grace Abbott as its first director. Believing that the law should apply equally to all urban dwellers, she worked to secure state legislation that would protect immigrants from the illegal activities of private employment agencies and fraudulent savings banks. An advocate of better legislation, wiser administration, and a keener sense of obligation in every citizen, she wrote many articles in both popular and academic publications in defense of the “new immigration” of southern and eastern Europeans. In 1912 she testified before the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization against the proposed literacy test designed to curtail the political freedom of immigrants. Although the literacy test was passed by Congress five years later, her campaign led the Massachusetts legislature to ask her to investigate immigration in that state. Impressed with her report, the Massachusetts commission offered her a permanent position with a better salary. But Abbott turned them down to return to Chicago.

With many of her settlement house colleagues, Abbott became involved in myriad social reform projects that stemmed from the new problems of an urban industrial nation. Her work with immigrant girls and women as well as her association with Breckinridge inspired Abbott to become an active member of the Women’s Trade Union League, where she supported the eight-hour day for women as well as the Saturday half-day. These reforms made it possible for working women to pursue education and recreation. She developed a state plan for the enforcement of compulsory school attendance of immigrant children; she even collected the names of school-aged children arriving at Ellis Island for the superintendents of schools. She and her helpers also visited immigrant homes to ensure that children were attending school and not working in factories. She also chaired a special Committee on Penal and Correctional Institutions in 1915, where she especially explored the treatment of women prisoners.

Abbott viewed the activities of Hull-House as both social research and social assistance. She felt that she could not understand the immigrant response to America without visiting their original homes and so took several breaks from her role as director of the Immigrants’ Protective League to travel in Europe and study immigration at the source. She disseminated the fruits of the research in articles and lectures at the School of Civics and Philanthropy, which eventually became the School of Social Service at the University of Chicago. Both Edith and Grace were committed to the idea that social work followed “scientific” principles and should be taught by professional schools attached to universities. At the same time, Abbott believed that social research should inform social policy; she often criticized lawmakers for creating social and political institutions for an imaginary homogeneous people.

In 1917 Abbott published The Immigrant and the Community, an extended essay that merged new social science methods and policy analysis to address the “immigration problem.” The culmination of eight years of work with the Immigrants’ Protective League, seven years of residence in Hull-House, six months’ investigation for the Massachusetts Commission on Immigration, and personal visits to some of the areas that produced the most immigrants, Abbott’s book challenged the nativist thinking that dominated immigration policy and suggested state involvement in the lives of immigrants, both to protect their civil rights and to encourage their “adjustment” to American life.

Also in 1917 Abbott was offered the opportunity to direct the Industrial Division of the Federal Children’s Bureau. With immigration reduced to a trickle because of the war, she welcomed the chance to engage in a new pursuit. The Children’s Bureau was headed by Julia Lathrop, a close friend of the Abbotts. Lathrop eased the move to Washington, D.C., and groomed Grace Abbott for her new responsibilities as a national social welfare advocate. At the bureau, Abbott created an entirely new system for inspection, certification, and enforcement of child-labor laws and worked to ensure that the new system did not upset state practices. She returned to Illinois in 1919 to head a state immigration commission, but political maneuvering led to the elimination of the commission’s funding after only two years in operation. While Abbott successfully reestablished the Immigrants’ Protective League in place of the commission, she was ready to return to Washington in 1921 to succeed Lathrop as the chief of the Children’s Bureau.

As the bureau’s new chief, Abbott administrated the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921, which extended the first federal grants-in-aid for social welfare purposes and authorized federal-state cooperation in promoting maternal and child health. In her thirteen years at the Children’s Bureau, Abbott traveled widely and formed alliances with various women’s organizations across the country; she also used the popular media to provide information for mothers. When Congress repealed the controversial act in 1929 and the Children’s Bureau almost lost its health program to the Public Health Service, she mobilized support for a separate office. At the same time, she served as the official representative for the United States on the League of Nations’ advisory committee on white slavery and child welfare. She was also president of the National Conference of Social Work (1923–1924) and helped to organize the first Conference of Social Work in Paris in 1928. While she resigned from the Children’s Bureau in 1934, Abbott worked as a member of the President’s Council on Economic Security in 1934–1935 and helped to draft the Social Security Act.

Also in 1934 Abbott returned to the University of Chicago to teach and held a professorship in the School of Social Service Administration until 1939. At the same time she edited the Social Service Review and published a collection of annotated documents about state responsibility in child welfare called The Child and the State (1938). Abbott chose never to marry and lived with her sister in Chicago until her death. Later in her life, Abbott struggled with tuberculosis and sometimes had to remove herself from official business to convalesce in Colorado. She traveled and worked virtually until the moment of her death, enjoying brief intervals of strength. She died in Chicago.

As an important member of the powerful social reform movement in Chicago at the turn of the century, Abbott greatly influenced the creation of state-sponsored social programs and increased public sensitivity to the plight of immigrants, women, and children. Following the example of her distinguished teachers, she also encouraged women to participate in public administration. Thus, Abbott was not only a pioneer in the field of social work, but also an early lobbyist. Her political savvy coupled with her formidable grasp of law and social fact made her a force to be reckoned with in Chicago as well as in the nation’s capital.


The University of Chicago library houses Abbott’s personal and professional papers as well as family correspondence. Edith Abbott had hoped to publish a book about Grace’s life; the unfinished manuscript is also available at the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago. Some manuscript materials can be found in the Survey Papers at the Archives of Social Welfare History, University of Minnesota, and the Nebraska State Historical Society. Edith Abbott provides a rich description of Grace’s ideas and achievements in “Grace Abbott: A Sister’s Memories,” Social Service Review, Sept. 1939, pp. 351–407, and the two-part “Grace Abbott and Hull-House, 1908–1921,” Social Service Review, Sept. 1950, pp. 374–94, and Dec. 1950, pp. 493–518. For the most complete biography of her life and work, see Lela B. Costin, Two Sisters for Social Justice: A Biography of Grace and Edith Abbott (1983). See also Jill Conway, “Women Reformers and American Culture, 1870–1930,” Journal of Social History 5 (Winter 1971–1972): 164–77. An obituary is in the New York Times, 20 June 1939.