Woerishoffer, Carola (1885–1911)

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Woerishoffer, Carola (1885–1911)

American social activist and philanthropist who worked for the betterment of labor conditions . Born Emma Carola Woerishoffer in August 1885 in New York City; died in an automobile accident on September 11, 1911; daughter of Anna (Uhl) Woerishoffer and Charles Frederick Woerishoffer; granddaughter of Anna Uhl Ottendorfer (1815–1884); educated at the Brearley School, New York; graduated from Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, 1907.

Carola Woerishoffer was born in New York City in 1885, the only child of Anna Uhl Woerishoffer and Charles Frederick Woerishoffer, a wealthy German-born Wall Street banker. Carola, who inherited her father's large fortune on his death in 1886, was raised by her mother Anna, a social reformer and advocate of the working class. (Anna's own mother Anna Uhl Ottendorfer had managed a progressive German-language newspaper in New York.) Carola went to private schools, including the Brearley School, and then moved to Pennsylvania to attend Bryn Mawr College. There she excelled in both academics and athletics, studying economics, philosophy, languages, and political science. She graduated in 1907, and returned to New York City.

Although she did not need to work, Woerishoffer followed the example of her mother and became active as a social reformer. In 1908, she helped with the American Museum of Natural History to produce a Congestion Exhibit, which exposed New Yorkers to the crowded, unsanitary living conditions suffered by the city's poor. Her involvement with the exhibit led to associations with Florence Kelley , founder of New York's National Consumers' League, and Mary Simkhovitch , founder of the Greenwich House settlement home; she became a leader in both organizations.

Like many women activists at the turn of the 20th century, Woerishoffer was particularly concerned with the labor and living conditions of women, and in 1908 she was a founder of the New York Women's Trade Union League (WTUL). She served as its treasurer and worked in the union label shop as well. Her efforts on behalf of women expanded to include non-union work when she became a district leader for the New York Woman Suffrage Party.

The following year, Woerishoffer wanted to investigate the working conditions in the laundry industry herself, believing that social reform movements needed to be grounded in empirical evidence in order to effect change. As part of her desire to unite compassion with scientific research, for four months Woerishoffer took jobs under an assumed name in a dozen laundries. To be able to understand the lives of the workers better, she lived off her laundry pay and worked 15-hour days, six and seven days a week, in dangerous and unhealthy conditions. She then reported to the National Consumers' League on the terrible conditions laundresses endured.

She was hired by New York State's Wainwright Commission on employer liability to investigate employment agencies, again working under a false name as an immigrant service worker. Woerishoffer believed that the changing of public perceptions was important, and governmental regulation of labor conditions and wages was required. She saw her research and that of others, gathering evidence and statistical data, as vital to proving to the government the need for federal intervention. In 1910, she was appointed investigator to the Bureau of Industries and Immigration of the New York State Association for Labor Legislation. Her work involved traveling across the state investigating immigrant labor camps and reporting her findings to the bureau.

As a volunteer in her many organizations, Woerishoffer worked in menial tasks, refusing privileges for herself because of her wealth and status. Yet she enthusiastically devoted her personal wealth to her causes as well. In 1909, she supported striking garment workers by arguing for them in court and put up $75,000 in real estate as bond for jailed strikers. Although she was eager to discuss the strike and the workers' grievances with newspaper reporters, Woerishoffer refused to let herself become the center of the coverage, and maintained a low profile to keep attention on the workers themselves.

Carola Woerishoffer died in a car accident near Cannonsville, New York, in September 1911, while she was driving home from a labor camp investigation. She was 26 years old. Perhaps her most important legacy came from her will, which stipulated a bequest of $750,000 to her alma mater, Bryn Mawr. The college created an endowment fund and, in 1915, founded a new school in her honor. The Carola Woerishoffer Graduate Department of Social Economy and Social Research was the first professional school of social work in the world, and the first American school to offer a doctoral degree in social work.


Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. Vol. 23. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California