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date: 22 January 2020

Abbott, Edithfree

(26 September 1876–28 July 1957)
  • Kathleen Banks Nutter

Abbott, Edith (26 September 1876–28 July 1957), social reformer, social work educator, and author, was born in Grand Island, Nebraska, the daughter of Othman Ali Abbott, a lawyer and first lieutenant governor of Nebraska, and Elizabeth Maletta Griffin, a woman suffrage advocate. Abbott grew up in a comfortable and politically progressive household on the American prairie. However, the severe economic depression that began in 1893 caused Abbott to postpone her college plans after graduation from an Omaha girls’ boarding school. Instead, at the age of seventeen she became a teacher at the Grand Island High School.

Through summer sessions, correspondence courses, and finally full-time study, Abbott received her undergraduate degree from the University of Nebraska in 1901. While attending a summer session at the University of Chicago in 1902, she so impressed the faculty, including the renowned economist Thorstein Veblen, that she won a fellowship for full-time study. In 1903 Abbott began work on her Ph.D. in political economics, graduating with honors in 1905. Her dissertation focused on unskilled labor and wages in the nineteenth century.

After a brief stint as the secretary for the Boston Women’s Trade Union League, Abbott spent six months as a researcher for the Carnegie Institution, working in both Washington, D.C., and New York City, concentrating on the problems women faced as industrial workers. In 1906 she published a series of articles based on her research in the Journal of Political Economy. That same year she received a Carnegie fellowship as well as a scholarship from the Association of Collegiate Alumnae for postdoctoral study at the London School of Economics. There Abbott met the English social reformers Beatrice and Sidney Webb and was swayed by the Webbs’ insistence that reform, not charity, was the most efficient route to alleviating poverty. Returning to the United States in 1907, she taught for one year at Wellesley College before joining her sister Grace Abbott, also a social reformer and later (1921–1934) director of the U.S. Children’s Bureau, in Chicago. Together, the two sisters lived for the next dozen years at Hull-House, the settlement founded by Jane Addams almost two decades earlier. As a part of this vibrant, predominantly female circle of Progressive reformers, Abbott pursued her interests in the professionalization of social work.

In 1908 Abbott became the assistant to Sophonisba Breckinridge, director of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. Together, the two led the effort to establish social work as a profession at the same time emphasizing the need for rational state planning rather than haphazard private charity in addressing the needs of the poor. Abbott and Breckinridge also co-authored two studies examining juvenile delinquency, child labor laws, and compulsory education laws. The Delinquent Child and the Home was published in 1912, followed by Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools in 1917.

A prolific author in her own right, Abbott published more than 100 articles and books during her lifetime, including the classic Women in Industry (1910). That work, based in part on her earlier research for the Carnegie Institution, was a comprehensive look at working women in the United States from the colonial era to the early years of the twentieth century. Predating the work of modern labor historians by several decades, Abbott used corporate records and census data to document how the industrialization of the American economy affected women by creating low wages and harsh working conditions.

Abbott applied the same painstaking research methods in the cause of woman suffrage before the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the unqualified right to vote. In Illinois, where women had limited suffrage rights, Abbott was able to track voting patterns because women were given different ballots and tabulations were broken down by gender. Analyzing the results of municipal elections in Chicago between 1915 and 1917, Abbott argued that women, unlike men, consistently voted not out of loyalty for a particular political party but for reform-minded candidates. In two articles published in the progressive journal National Municipal Review, she joined the chorus of those demanding full suffrage for women as part of the social reform effort.

But it was as an educator that Edith Abbott made her most remembered contribution. In 1920, when the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy began to experience financial difficulties, Abbott and Breckinridge persuaded the University of Chicago to take over its administration. Now known as the School of Social Service Administration, it became the first university-sponsored graduate program in the field. Abbott felt strongly that social workers should be trained in the most up-to-date scientific methods of social inquiry and service, combining fieldwork with course work. Appointed dean of the School of Social Service Administration in 1924, Abbott designed the curriculum that professionalized social work. Still true to her social reform roots, she sought to impress upon students the ever-increasing need for statistical evidence in formulating state policy. To gain the widest audience possible, Abbott collaborated with Breckinridge in the formation of the Social Service Review in 1927. In addition to this professional journal, the two also published case studies as part of the prestigious University of Chicago Social Service Series.

During the 1920s many Americans became increasingly hostile to the perceived negative effects of unrestricted immigration. In 1924 Congress passed the Immigration Restriction Act, which set quotas on immigration by country. At the same time, Abbott was calling for legislation to prohibit exploitation of recent immigrants. In 1924 she published Immigration: Select Documents and Case Records and, two years later, Historical Aspects of the Immigration Problem: Select Documents. In 1929 President Herbert Hoover appointed Abbott to the Wickersham Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement. She focused on the issue of criminal acts among immigrants and, through exhaustive research, concluded that contrary to popular belief immigrants actually committed far fewer crimes in proportion to their numbers in the general population. Published in 1931 as the Report on Crime and Criminal Justice in Relation to the Foreign Born, the publication announced that “charging our high crime rates against the foreign born … is the ‘easy way’—the line of least resistance… . But an attempt to face squarely the more difficult problems of life is more in line with our American traditions.”

Always an advocate of public assistance administered by government rather than by private agencies, Abbott applauded the initial efforts of the New Deal to respond to the national emergency known as the Great Depression. However, she criticized the fact that most administrative authority was left to the individual states. She feared that in their haste to distribute much-needed relief, New Deal agencies would establish poor guidelines for social services. She welcomed the proposal of Harry Hopkins, head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), to establish a federal scholarship program to train state-level FERA administrators at accredited schools of social work. In 1934 Abbott saw the enrollment at her graduate school swell and its national reputation grow. Her own reputation as a leader in social work education was recognized when she was elected president of the National Conference of Social Work in 1936.

Although the 1930s brought professional success to Edith Abbott, her personal life became increasingly trying. After fighting a rare form of cancer for several years, Edith’s sister Grace Abbott died in 1939. The two sisters had been remarkably close all their lives, and the death of her younger sister devastated Abbott. She found some solace in her remaining family and a few close friends, but she sought to ease her grief primarily through her work. In 1941 she published her last book, Public Assistance. A year later she stepped down as dean of the School of Social Service Administration though she continued teaching and editing the Social Service Review.

The death of Abbott’s mentor and close friend, Sophonisba Breckinridge, in 1948 was another personal blow. A year later she was invited to live at Hull-House again, and though the community of which she had been such a vital part forty years earlier was long gone, she was relieved to no longer live alone. In 1951, at the age of seventy-five, she received the National Conference of Social Work’s Survey Award in recognition of her “imaginative and constructive contributions to social work.” True to form, she used her acceptance speech as another opportunity to demand continued reform of government services to the poor. Suffering from glaucoma during her final years, Abbott returned to her family’s home in Grand Island, Nebraska, where she died.


Edith Abbott’s papers, along with those of her sister Grace, are held by the Regenstein Library, University of Chicago. Abbott’s dozens of articles and books are annotated by Rachel Marks in “The Published Writings of Edith Abbott: A Bibliography,” Social Service Review 32 (Mar. 1958): 51–56. Abbott’s life and career are ably discussed in Lela B. Costin, Two Sisters for Social Justice: A Biography of Grace and Edith Abbott (1983). An obituary is in the New York Times, 30 July 1957.