Abbott, Edith

views updated Jun 08 2018

Edith Abbott

Edith Abbott (1876–1957) American social reformer, author, and educator, dedicated her life to improving the social welfare of workers, immigrants, children, and women. In 1920, she was integral to founding of the first graduate-level program in social work at the University of Chicago; she became Dean of the School of Social Service Administration in 1924, holding that position until 1942. Because of her contributions to the research of practice of social work, Abbott is considered one of the most important historical figures in the field.

Early Life and Education

Abbott, the daughter of lawyer and former lieutenant-governor of Nebraska Othman Ali Abbott and early advocate for women's suffrage Elizabeth Maletta Griffin Abbott, was born on September 26, 1876 in Grand Island, Nebraska. Grand Island was a railroad town with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants at the time of Abbott's birth, but her family—which included younger sister Grace, with whom she was close throughout her life—was reasonably well-off. Abbott's mother instilled progressive values in her daughters from a young age, teaching young Edith Abbott about the importance of social reform and rights for women. Abbott attended Brownell Hall, a boarding school in Omaha, but was unable to attend college after graduation due to the recent economic downturn. Instead, she returned to Grand Island where she became a high school teacher.

Abbott continued her studies, however, despite her initial inability to attend college. At first, she took correspondence courses and attended summer sessions, but was eventually able to study at the University of Nebraska in the state's capital, Lincoln, receiving her undergraduate degree in 1901. The following year, she attended a summer session at the University of Chicago where she attracted the attention of faculty members, particularly economist Thorstein Veblen; they granted her a fellowship, enabling her to begin work on her doctorate at the institution in 1903. She graduated with honors in 1905, having written an economics dissertation on unskilled wage labor from 1850–1900. This piece was published in June 1906 by the Journal of Political Economy, a scholarly publication that would print many articles by Abbott throughout her life.

Women in Industry and Hull House

After completing her graduate work, Abbott moved for a short time to Boston, where she worked as the secretary for the Women's Trade Union League. She then spent several months researching the history of and problems faced by women in wage-based industrial employment for the Carnegie Institution; this research led to a series of articles published beginning in 1906 in the Journal of Political Economy. These articles formed the foundation for what would become her best-known book, Women in Industry: A Study in American Economic History, published in 1910. The year 1906 brought Abbott another professional coup: winning a Carnegie fellowship for post-doctoral study and a scholarship from the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, she traveled to London to attend the renowned London School of Economics. There, she studied under economists and social reformers Beatrice and Sidney Webb, who convinced Abbott of the importance of reform over charity in the aid of those stricken by poverty.

When Abbott returned to the United States, she taught briefly at Wellesley College outside Boston before returning to Chicago she joined her sister Grace as a staff member at Jane Addams' Hull House. Hull House, a settlement house in a poor Chicago immigrant neighborhood, offered educational and social lectures and programs for the neighborhood's families; residents were social reformers dedicated to the idea of what the Hull House Association's website calls "neighbors helping neighbors." At Hull House, Abbott became the assistant director of research under Sophonisba P. Breckinridge, another Progressive reformer who was the research director of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy and who had been Abbott's mentor earlier in her career. Working with Breckinridge and with her sister Grace Abbott, Edith Abbott became particularly concerned with the problems of immigrant women workers, ultimately lobbying for legislation for the ten-hour work day as well as promoting the admission of women to labor unions. She also worked to secure better housing for individual workers.

In the 1910s, Abbott supported the cause of women's suffrage. National voting rights had not yet been granted to women—the Nineteenth Amendment, striking down voting restrictions based on sex, was not ratified until 1920—although women had limited rights in Illinois. Because women voted using distinctive ballots and election results were split down by sex, Abbott was able to perform statistical research on the differences between men's and women's voting patterns. She found that women were more likely to vote for progressive, reformer candidates and less likely to follow party lines; this research added to the growing body of work calling for equal votes for American women.

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba Breckenridge

Breckenridge and Abbott sought to professionalize social work, which up to this time had been strictly under the provenance of charity efforts; often, reformers or wealthy people with the best intentions undertook charity work that was slapdash, poorly planned or simply ineffective. Working together, the two published studies on some of the problems faced by poor children, such as child labor, juvenile delinquency, and education. Addressing the problems of poor workers, including poor housing standards and the industrial environment, particularly that faced by women, Breckenridge and Abbott also published in scholarly journals such as the Journal of Political Economy and the American Sociological Review. The two produced longer works as well, including The Delinquent Child and the Home, published in 1912, and Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools, published in 1917.

Some of these works contain vivid images of the everyday lives and difficulties of Chicago's working class; in "Women in Industry: The Chicago Stockyards," published in the Journal of Political Economy in October 1911, Abbott and Breckinridge wrote that "within the yards there are ugly sights which are a nuisance equally with the smoke and the smells … a most hideous load of crimson heads [from dead animals], for example, may not infrequently be seen traveling from the south to the north end of the yards, without any attempt at concealment." Throughout her life, Abbott was appalled at such conditions and strove to better them.

Dean and Educator

In 1920, Breckenridge and Abbott helped the fiscally-ailing Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy find a new home with the University of Chicago. There, it was renamed the School of Social Service Administration and immediately offered the first graduate-level program in the field of social work. Abbott, who believed deeply in the importance of a university-taught, graduate education as a key to professionalizing social work, became the Dean of the School in 1924; she was first female dean of any United States graduate school. She developed a program of study based on the paired studies of social, historical and legal issues relevant to the practice of social work and of field casework. In 1927, Abbott, with the assistance of Breckenridge, founded the scholarly journal Social Service Review. The publication, still administered by the University of Chicago, states that it "is committed to examining social welfare policy and practice and evaluating its effects"—a mission little, if at all, changed from the time of its conception.

However, Abbott's role as Dean did not stop her from continuing her reform work. From her time at Hull House, Abbott had a special concern for the welfare of immigrants; by the 1920s, much of the general American public sentiment was anti-immigrant and in 1924, Congress passed a law setting immigration quotas. Despite this negative environment, Abbott strove for legislation protecting the rights of recent immigrants. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover appointed Abbott to the newly-formed National Commission on Law Observation and Enforcement, popularly called the Wickersham Commission. Although most of the Commission's findings centered on the crimes caused by Prohibition, Abbott examined the role of immigrants in crime, arguing that the foreign-born population of the United States in fact committed fewer crimes than the native residents.

Abbott remained at the forefront of social and governmental welfare programs in the 1930s. When New Deal programs to alleviate some of the poverty caused by the Great Depression appeared, Abbott supported their creation but expressed concern over the number of poorly-trained social service workers; when the head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration proposed a scholarship program to train federal social workers, Abbott's school reaped the benefits of increased enrollment and added notoriety. In 1934 and 1935, Abbott, along with her sister Grace Abbott, contributed to the nascent Social Security Act legislation; although not all of the Abbott sisters' suggestions survived legislative approval, both Abbotts were pleased that the federal government was committing itself to supporting workers. The following year, Edith Abbott was recognized for her lifelong contributions by being elected the president of the National Conference on Social Work.

Last Years and Legacy

Personal tragedy struck Edith Abbott when her sister, Grace Abbott, died as the result of multiple myeloma—a relatively rare form of blood cancer—in 1939. The sisters had been close throughout their lives, living together for several years at Hull House and tied through professional interests; Grace Abbott had been active in the reform of child labor. Her death devastated her sister; always abrupt and uncomfortable outside of work situations, Abbott became, according to Lela B. Costin in Two Sisters for Social Justice, "more brusque, sometimes suspicious and quarrel-some. In the view of some … she had lost the ability to communicate meaningfully with many students and faculty." Abbott began a slow withdraw from public life. She published her final book, Public Assistance, in 1941 and resigned as Dean of the School of Social Service Administration in 1942. Over the next several years, she dedicated her time to teaching and to editing the Social Service Review.

Following the death of Breckenridge in 1948, Abbott returned to live at Hull House. Her last professional success came in 1951, when she received the Survey Award at the National Conference of Social Work; surprising most of the audience, she used her acceptance speech to call for further social reform at the national level. Later in life, when glaucoma and age made it impossible for her to live alone, she returned to Grand Island, Nebraska. Her family home had been converted to apartments and Edith and two brothers each had their own. There, she lived out the last years of her life. On July 28, 1957, Abbott died in Grand Island from pneumonia. She was 80 years old.

Remembered today primarily for her role as the founder of modern social work education and innovator in social work research and study, Abbott was also a prolific writer. Her over one hundred articles and books cover many aspects of social welfare and history, from women and children in industry to immigration issues to the dangers of and solutions to poverty. Abbott relied heavily on factual, statistical evidence to support her claims and make recommendations for improvement. As reformer, Abbott was tireless, devoting nearly three-quarters of her life to the struggle for social welfare.



Costin, Lela B., Two Sisters for Social Justice: A Biography of Grace and Edith Abbott, University of Illinois, 1983.


Journal of Political Economy, October 1911.


"Gale Literary Databases: Edith Abbott," (January 5, 2006).

"Grand Island History," (January 5, 2006).

Luft, Margaret, "Jane Addams Hull House," (January 5, 2006).

Nutter, Kathleen Banks, "American National Biography Online: Edith Abbott," (January 5, 2006).

"Social Service Review: Description," (January 5, 2006).

"SSA Tour: Edith Abbott," (January 5, 2006).

Abbott, Edith

views updated Jun 11 2018


Born 26 September 1876, Grand Island, Nebraska; died 28 July 1957, Grand Island, Nebraska

Daughter of Othman Ali and Elizabeth Abbott

Edith Abbott was the first woman dean of a graduate school in an American university and, simultaneously, the first dean of the first school of social work in the nation. A dedicated social reformer and scientist, Abbott's significant contributions are often overshadowed by the fame and writings of her close friends and colleagues at Hull House in Chicago: Jane Addams, Sophonisba Breckinridge, and her sister, Grace Abbott.

Born into a well-established family that had moved to the Nebraska frontier just prior to her birth, Abbott was encouraged to be independent and intellectual. She graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1901 and, frustrated with the lack of career opportunities in Nebraska, moved to Illinois where she began her studies at the University of Chicago.

After receiving her Ph.D. in political economy in 1907, Abbott became an industrious and illustrious faculty member of the University of Chicago. When the School of Social Services Administration was founded in 1920, she was appointed dean. Always interested in women's rights, Abbott fought for high positions for women, laying a foundation for the female control and domination in social work that has continued until today. Abbott, her sister Grace, and Sophonisba Breckinridge were major leaders in the formation of public policy affecting women, children, industrial relations, and immigration. Furthermore, they helped establish the profession of social work as an academic occupation, raising its prestige and power as a source of social change. Unfortunately, their tradition of sound research and political advocacy on behalf of the underprivileged, especially women, has lost much of its momentum among conservative social workers of today.

Abbott's first book, Women in Industry: A Study in American Economic History (1909), is a massive, comprehensive study of women's work in the marketplace. Evolving out of earlier work done with Breckinridge on census statistics dealing with the employment of women, it developed a complex and thorough analysis of women in various industrial areas, including factories, cotton mills, and the clothing and printing industries. The book records not only historical antecedents of women's industrial labor but also 1909 public opinion. It is an invaluable history of the early labor movements and occupational structures, as well as the more specialized topic of women and industry.

Abbott coauthored The Delinquent Child and the Home with Breckinridge in 1912. It elaborates in a systematic and documented fashion the problems of urban youth. Abbott and Breckinridge again collaborated when they wrote Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools: A Study of the Social Aspects of the Compulsory Education and Child Labor Legislation of Illinois (1917). Highly committed to the need for education until age sixteen, the authors examine the many factors leading to school absence, such as poverty, mental and physical defects, lack of knowledge of immigrant parents and children, and delinquency. Documenting the existence and extent of missed school days and the historical development of compulsory education, remedies are suggested. The authors' arguments are still timely and the controversy still lively.

The Tenements of Chicago, 1908-1935 (1936), is a massive study of housing conditions and poverty in Chicago. The book, a result of 25 years of study, is based on house-to-house canvassing in 151 city blocks, including visits to 18,225 apartments. The problems Abbott and Breckinridge noted, such as lack of enforcement of housing regulations, too few city inspectors, high rents for substandard housing, large numbers of unemployed suffering from the social stresses of broken families, ill health, and lack of education, are as relevant today as they were over 40 years ago. The documentation of these problems provides an excellent basis for their understanding today.

Abbott's vision of social work as an aggressive, policymaking, and controversial profession is clearly specified in Social Welfare and Professional Education (1931). Partially written during the Great Depression, it advocates government-sponsored, guaranteed employment, centralized and organized through public agencies.

Abbott was a talented, conscientious scholar, educator, and social reformer who was overshadowed during her life by her association with famous and more charismatic figures. Today she remains little known outside of the field of social work, but her writings are a witness and a tribute to her talents and contributions.


The Real Jail Problem (1915). The One Hundred and One County Jails of Illinois and Why They Ought to Be Abolished (1916). Immigration: Selected Documents and Case Records (1924). Historical Aspects of the Immigration Problem (1926). Some American Pioneers in Social Welfare (1937). Public Assistance (1940). From Relief to Social Security: The Development of the New Public Welfare Services (1941). Twenty-One Years of University Education for Social Service, 1920-1941 (1942).


Chambers, C. A., Seedtime of Reform: American Social Service and Social Action, 1918-1933 (1963). Costin, L. B., "Edith Abbott and the Chicago Influence on Social Work Education" in Social Service Review (March 1983). Costin, L. B., Two Sisters for Social Justice: A Biography of Grace and Edith Abbott (1983).

Other reference:

Survey Graphic (June 1936). ANB (1999).