Grace Abbott

Grace Abbott, Library of Congress

Grace Abbott is among the greatest champions of children's rights in American history.  As chief of the United States Children's Bureau (1921-1934), Abbott was a vigorous leader in the early 20th century fight against child labor and was a longtime crusader for improved child and maternal health care.  The press of her day referred to her as "Mother of America's 43 million children."

A trusted associate of Nobel Prize winner Jane Addams, Abbott was a longtime Hull House resident who also made significant contributions to the field of immigration rights during her tenure as director of the influential Chicago-based Immigrants’ Protective League (1908-1921).  

Her publications were fundamental to the new field of sociology and provide an excellent resource for historians today.  Among them are The Immigrant in the Community (1917) and a two-volume work, The Child and the State (1938).  Her sister, Edith Abbott, also was a founder of sociology and social work.

Beyond that, Grace Abbott was among the first female broadcasters to a national audience ("Your Child" NBC, 1920s).  Her trailblazing social service work has been credited with making significant contributions to the creation of the Social Security Act and the United Nation's UNICEF program.

She led fights against child labor in the coal mines of West Virginia and in the factories of Massachusetts.  Abbott championed the cause of infant and child health care from the slums of Chicago to the villages of the Appalachian Mountains.  She is credited with saving thousands of children’s and immigrants’ lives and improving those of millions more. 

 Through her work, she helped to bring health care and financial assistance to mothers and infants who, in earlier days, had been abandoned to sickness and death.  Her many impressive achievements led her to become the first woman in U.S. history to be nominated for a presidential Cabinet post (proposed as secretary of labor by Herbert Hoover).   As head of the federal Children’s Bureau, she served under four presidents:  Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt.
Also the first person sent to represent the U.S. at a committee of the League of Nations, Abbott held a master’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago.  She strongly supported women’s right to vote and participated in many political campaigns on behalf of progressive candidates and issues.

At the time of Grace Abbott's death, in 1939, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt called Abbott "one of the great women of our day ... a definite strength which we could count on for use in battle."   A Nebraska native, she was buried there with her sister Edith Abbott.

"Justice for all children is the high ideal in a democracy." -- Grace Abbott, c. 1930



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.