Taft, Jessie (1882–1960)

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Taft, Jessie (1882–1960)

American psychologist and social services educator. Born Julia Jessie Taft on June 24, 1882, in Dubuque, Iowa; died from a stroke on June 7, 1960, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; daughter of Charles Chester Taft (a wholesale fruit seller) and Amanda May (Farwell) Taft; Drake University, B.A., 1904; University of Chicago, Ph.B., 1905, Ph.D., 1913; companion of Virginia Robinson (a psychologist and writer), 1912–1960; children: (adopted) two.

The eldest of three daughters, Jessie Taft was born in 1882 in Dubuque, Iowa, to Charles and Amanda Taft . Except for a brief stint in Florida, Jessie lived in Iowa throughout her young adulthood. The Tafts enjoyed a comfortable middle-class existence, as Charles ran a successful wholesale fruit business. When Amanda gradually lost her hearing and became increasingly detached from the family, Jessie developed a close relationship with an aunt who had come to live with them.

After graduating from high school, Taft received a B.A. from Drake University in 1904 and a Ph.B. in 1905 from the University of Chicago. She then taught mathematics, Latin, and German at the West Des Moines High School for four years before returning to the University of Chicago under a fellowship to work on her doctorate. Taft's years in Chicago profoundly affected her professional life. She studied philosophy and psychology with George Herbert Mead, James H. Tufts, and Addison W. Moore and was particularly influenced by the writings of such women as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ida Tarbell , and Edith Abbott . While at the University of Chicago, she also met Virginia Robinson , who became her lifelong friend and companion, professional colleague, and biographer. In 1913, Taft earned a Ph.D., and two years later published her dissertation under the title The Woman's Movement from the Point of View of Social Consciousness. In it, she defined the need to reconcile the social world of women with that of a professional life.

While on leave from Chicago in 1912, Taft had spent six months in New York City with Robinson, interviewing women in prisons and reformatories for a study initiated by Katharine Bement Davis . After receiving her doctorate, she returned and worked for Davis at the New York State Reformatory for Women and then in 1915 became director of the Social Services Department of the New York State Charities Aid Association's Mental Hygiene Committee. There she developed mental health programs for the state of New York and carried a caseload at the New York Hospital Mental Hygiene Clinic. She also established the Farm School in New Jersey for children who were having problems in school.

In 1918, Taft moved to Philadelphia, where her professional reputation and expertise in social work with children increased. She was appointed director of the Seybert Institution's newly created Department of Child Study, a shelter for children awaiting placement. Her department was taken over by the state in 1920 and Taft was able to expand the mental health services offered to children. She also established a training program for staff, assisted in finding placement for children, and counseled foster parents.

It was during this period that Taft developed her theories on foster care and adoption, and the role of the social worker and agency in the process. She was in demand to speak and write on the subject, and her personal life influenced her professional opinions. She and Robinson, who had purchased a house together in Flourtown, Pennsylvania, adopted two children.

Another major influence upon Taft's life occurred when she met Otto Rank in 1924 and underwent analysis with him in 1926. Her opportunity to apply his theories to her social work came when, in 1934, she was appointed professor of social casework at the Pennsylvania School of Social Work (later part of the University of Pennsylvania). There she worked with Robinson until her retirement in 1950. Taft established the curriculum and influenced its practical philosophy, known as functionalism.

At this time a controversy arose in social work education between the Freudian approach to practice, which involved a diagnosis and treatment determined by the therapist, and the Pennsylvania School's functional approach, which offered assistance. Taft wrote extensively about functionalism and its application to social work education and in 1933 published The Dynamics of Therapy in a Controlled Relationship. In addition to a two-volume translation of Rank's work, Taft spent her retirement years working on a biography of Rank, which was published in 1958. Straightforward in her relationships with others, Taft strongly believed that a person's professional self was the one of true value. She died of a stroke in a Philadelphia hospital in 1960.


Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Martha Jones , M.L.S., Natick, Massachusetts