Edith Abbott

Edith Abbott

Edith Abbott, elder sister and lifelong colleague of Grace Abbott, was among the most important Americans involved in the establishment of social work as a profession -- requiring not merely the “good intentions” of its practitioners, but a scrupulous intellectual education and rigorous practical training.
Abbott was a key figure in the creation of the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration, which was one of the first programs of social work -- perhaps the very first -- at a great U.S. university.  She became dean of the school in 1924, the first woman in U.S. history to be dean of a major American university graduate school.

Her academic career had begun with a 1905 doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago, but she went beyond that to do further study at the London School of Economics.  Her first book, Women in Industry (1909), remains a milestone in feminist economic history.  Among Edith Abbott’s other major publications are The Real Jail Problem (1915) and two books on immigration in 1924 and 1926.  Her 1941 work, Public Assistance, was a summary of responses to the economic collapse of the Great Depression.

She was the co-founder in 1927 of the renowned publication "Social Service Review" and was also its longtime editor, and she was named president of the American Association of Schools of Social Work from 1925 to 1927.  Appointed to the Wickersham Commission that investigated international crime  and the effects of Prohibition in the late 1920s, she also was president of the National Conference of Social Work in 1937.

Abbott spoke out on controversial issues, including opposition to World War I and the immigration quotas that followed it in the 1920s; she also argued for labor laws to protect workingwomen from exploitation.  She retired to her native Nebraska in 1953 and died there at age 80. 
At the time of Edith Abbott’s death in 1957, Wayne McMillen of "Social Service Review" wrote:  “History will include her name among the handful of leaders who have made enduring contributions to the field of education.  Social work has now taken its place as an established profession.  She, more than any other one person, gave direction to the education required for that profession.  Posterity will not forget achievements such as these.”

"The great hymn of all social service is to preserve the self-respect of the people we are working with and for." -- Edith Abbott, 1945



Works Cited:

  • Papers of Grace and Edith Abbott, Regenstein Library, University of Chicago.
  • Costin, Lela. TWO SISTERS FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE: A Biography of Grace and Edith Abbott.  University of Illinois Press, 1983.
  • Sorensen, John with Judith Sealander, ed. THE GRACE ABBOTT READER.  University of Nebraska Press, 2008.