ABBOTT, EDITH (1876-1957)
Edith Abbott was among the most important Americans who were involved in the establishment of social work as a profession–a profession akin to those of law, medicine, and theology, requiring not merely the "good intentions" of its practitioners but a scrupulous intellectual education and a rigorous practical training. As the first woman to become the dean of a major American university graduate school (University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration), Abbott prepared several generations of social servants to assume what she called "the grave responsibility of interfering with the lives of human beings."
Abbott was born in Grand Island, Nebraska, on September 26, 1876. She grew up in a family of social activists that included her younger sister (and lifelong professional colleague), Grace Abbott, the great American champion of children's rights. Edith and Grace Abbott were the daughters of Elizabeth Griffen, an early leader of the Nebraska suffrage movement, and of O. A. Abbott, a pioneer lawyer who was the first lieutenant governor of Nebraska. Describing the sisters' unusual upbringing amid family guests such as Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone, Edith Abbott later said, "We were brought up to stand by our guns, popular or not–and if unpopular, so much the better!"
In 1906 Edith Abbott, having earned a doctorate in economics at the University of Chicago, was awarded a trip to England, where she lived in a settlement house and came into contact with the famed socialists Beatrice and Sidney Webb of the Fabian Society. Abbott's successful studies in London led to a teaching post at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and, soon thereafter, the opportunity to return to Chicago to become a resident of Jane Addams's Hull House.
Edith Abbott's first book, the influential Women in Industry, was published in 1910. It was at about this same time that she joined the faculty of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. She was a key figure in the 1920 effort to move this institution of social work training to the University of Chicago, where it was renamed the School of Social Service Administration (SSA). Abbott thereafter led the ssa to become one of the first programs of social work–perhaps the very first– at a great American university. She became dean of the school in 1924.
For many years, through the Great Depression, Edith Abbott worked closely with her sister, Grace (then the highest-ranking woman in the federal government), to combat a wide array of social ills. It was through their joint efforts that many early forms of social welfare, some of which have been credited with leading to the New Deal programs that helped end the Great Depression, were begun. The Abbott sisters formed a complementary team, with each providing an invaluable and unique service. As Edith Abbott put it, "I could assemble the facts and write a report, but Grace had the gift of applying the proper legislative remedy."
Edith Abbott continued to publish important books on immigration, the tenements of Chicago, American pioneers in social welfare, and the philosophy of social welfare education. She was the cofounder in 1927 of the publication Social Service Review and was also its longtime editor; she was named president of the American Association of Schools of Social Work from 1925 to 1927; she was appointed to the Wickersham Commission (the National Committee on Law Enforcement and Observance) in the late 1920s; and she was the president of the National Conference of Social Work in 1937.
In 1942 Abbott retired from her position as dean of the ssa. She served as dean emeritus and continued teaching until 1952, when she returned to her hometown, where she died on July 29, 1957.
At the time of Edith Abbott's death, 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."
See also POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT: Abbott, Grace.
John Sorensen New York, New York
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. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Sorensen, John. "My Sister and Comrade: A Radio Portrait of Grace Abbott." Nebraska Public Radio, Lincoln, 1997.