Abbott, Edith 1876-1957

views updated

ABBOTT, Edith 1876-1957


Born September 26, 1876, in Grand Island, NE; died, July 28, 1957, in Grand Island, NE; daughter of Othman Ali (an attorney and former lieutenant governor of Nebraska), and Elizabeth Maletta (Griffin) Abbott. Education: University of Nebraska, B.A., 1901; University of Chicago, Ph.D. (with honors), 1905; postdoctoral study at the London School of Economics.


Taught high school in Grand Island and Lincoln, NE, beginning 1893; Women's Trade Union League, Boston, MA, secretary, 1905-06; Wellesley College, instructor in political economics, 1907-08; Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy (became University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, 1920), Chicago, IL, codirector and professor of social economy, 1908-42, dean, 1924-42. President, National Conference of Social Work, 1937; member of advisory committee on emigration, International Labor Organization.


National Association of Social Workers (former president).


Carnegie fellowship, 1903.


The Wages of Unskilled Labor in the United States, 1850-1900, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1905.

Women in Industry: A Study in American Economic History, Appleton (New York, NY), 1910.

(With Sophonisba P. Breckinridge) The Delinquent Child and the Home, (Chicago, IL), 1912, reprinted, Arno Press (New York, NY), 1970.

The Real Jail Problem, Hale-Crossley (Chicago, IL), 1915.

(With Sophonisba P. Breckinridge) Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools: A Study of the Social Aspects of the Compulsory Education and Child Labor Legislation of Illinois, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1917.

(With Sophonisba P. Breckinridge) The Administration of the Aid-to-Mothers Law in Illinois, United States Children's Bureau (Washington, DC), 1921, published in The Family and Social Services in the 1920s, Arno Press (New York, NY), 1972.

(Editor) Immigration: Select Documents and Case Records, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1924.

(Editor) Historical Aspects of the Immigration Problem: Select Documents, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1926.

Report on Crime and the Foreign Born, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1931.

Social Welfare and Professional Education, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1931, revised and enlarged edition, 1942.

(With Sophonisba P. Breckinridge, and others) The Tenements of Chicago, 1908-1935, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1936.

(Editor) Some American Pioneers in Social Welfare: Selected Documents, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1937.

Public Assistance, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1940.

(Editor) Grace Abbott, From Relief to Social Security: The Development of the New Public Welfare Services, 1941.

Also author of The One Hundred and One County Jails of Illinois and Why They Ought to Be Abolished, 1916, Twenty-one Years of University Education for Social Service, 1942, and, with Sophonisba P. Breckinridge, The Wage-Earning Woman and the State, Boston Equal Suffrage Association for Good Government (Boston, MA). Cofounder and editor of Social Service Review, 1927-53, and of University of Chicago Social Service monograph series. Contributor to New Republic, Social Service Review, and Nation. Abbott's manuscript collections are maintained at the Joseph Regenstein Library, University of Chicago; Archives of Social Welfare History at the University of Minnesota; and the Nebraska State Historical Association.


Edith Abbott was a social reformer who helped open new opportunities for women to become social workers. Much of her dedication stemmed from the influence of her mother, Elizabeth Griffin Abbott, who had taught both Edith and her sister Grace the values of independence, pacifism, and woman's suffrage. Although they had their differences, both sisters dedicated themselves to improving the situation of working women and labored throughout their lifetimes to further this cause.

Following her studies at the University of Chicago, Abbott left for Boston to become the secretary of the Women's Trade Union League and to do a research assignment on wages and employment of women for the Carnegie Institution. In the process of this research, her interest in women's work as it related to economic history heightened, eventually becoming the impetus for her book Women in Industry: A Study in American Economic History. Within a year of research, Abbott had accumulated enough data to begin the book—a lengthy, detailed historical volume—that was published in 1910. Women in Industry depicts the lives and conditions of women in industries, records the first women's labor movements, and polled 1909 public opinion. Beginning in 1906, portions of the book regularly appeared in the Journal of Political Economy.

After traveling to England, where she studied at the London School of Economics under noted Fabian economists Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Abbott returned to Chicago, where she joined the staff at Hull House, the famous the settlement house founded by Jane Addams. Here she worked with her sister Grace and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge, who had been her mentor when she was a university student. At the settlement residence, Abbott became familiar with the problems of immigrants. It was there that her social work training would begin, as she tried to improve the lot of immigrant women. The rights of women workers were of special concern to her, and she sought legislation for a ten-hour working day, worked toward bringing women into labor unions, and attempted to help immigrants find better living quarters and secure them their rights. In 1920, Abbott and Breckinridge incorporated the School of Civics and Philanthropy into the University of Chicago, where it became the School of Social Service Administration. Four years later, when Breckinridge resigned from the school, Abbott became dean.

Over her long career, Abbott wrote over one hundred articles and books covering many topics. As a scholar, she relied on factual evidence to lay the foundation for concrete solutions to the problems of women and children working long hours and living in poor conditions—a situation that became a particular concern during the Great Depression. With friend and collaborator Breckinridge, Abbott established the Social Service Review in 1927 and began a well-respected monograph series for the University of Chicago that included such documents as Immigration: Select Documents and Case Records and Historical Aspects of the Immigration Problem: Select Documents.

Over the years, the once-shy Abbott blossomed into a woman of action, but, following her sister's death in 1939, she became more withdrawn and increasingly more demanding of her students. Resolute in her belief that women were intellectually equal to their male counterparts and therefore equally deserving of an education, Abbott served as a major influence both in the formation of guidelines for the research and study of social work and in creating unique opportunities for women to contribute to each other's success in the field.



Costin, Lela B., Two Sisters for Social Justice: A Biography of Grace and Edith Abbott, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1983.*

About this article

Abbott, Edith 1876-1957

Updated About content Print Article


Abbott, Edith 1876-1957