Grace Abbott (1878 – 1939) - Social Work Pioneer, Reformer, Hull House Resident and Chief of the Children’s Bureau
By John Sorensen, Founding Director of the Abbott Sisters Project
An Introduction: A Life Among the Shock Troops
“Some ask, ‘Why should anyone seek a part in the struggle to end the injustice and ugliness of our modern life? Why choose the strenuous life?’
“They are the lotus-eaters, who prefer to live in a gray twilight in which there is neither victory nor defeat. It is impossible for them to understand: that to have had a part in the struggle — to have done what one could — is in itself the reward of effort and the comfort in defeat.”
– Grace Abbott, 1930
“To me there was something about Grace Abbott which always suggested Joan of Arc.”
– U.S. Representative Edward Keating, 1939
During World War I, American newspaper writers coined a provocative expression: “the shock troops.” The term designated those elite soldiers who were being ordered into the War’s most perilous combat offensives — into the very shock of the battle.
One day at about this time, a young woman named Grace Abbott came across that journalistic phrase. The woman was an ardent pacifist and an anti-war protester — all the same, the terminology of warfare never seemed to be far from her lips. She often spoke of the “casualties” lost and of the “battlefront service” given by her colleagues in the struggles for human rights.
Grace Abbott was immediately struck by the pertinence of the newspaper’s expression as it might be applied to a different kind of conflict — one in which she herself was deeply engaged. Before long, she was forcefully asserting that “The movement to end child labor has — in every country — supplied ‘the shock troops’ in the struggle for decent working conditions for all citizens.” There was no exaggeration in her analogy. Take a look at the mortality rate of children killed while working in the factories in those days. Read the stories of infants and mothers left dead or permanently crippled by grossly mishandled child birthings. Then you’ll understand that the early twentieth century crusade for children’s rights truly was being carried on in a war zone.
If you continue reading those news reports, you’ll see, too, that this woman — Grace Abbott — was there, fighting and living for several decades, on the battle’s very front line. She was the great American champion of childrens rights — bringing health care and financial assistance to mothers and infants who, in earlier days, had been abandoned to sickness and death; and, too, she was leading the fight to end child labor.
The combative way was nothing new to Grace. It was the life into which she had been born. Her mother’s family had worked on the Underground Railroad in slavery days before the Civil War; her father was a staunch abolitionist who had once been left for dead while fighting as a soldier in Lincoln’s Union army. Both of her parents were pioneers along the rugged Western frontier of the mid-1800s.
While Grace Abbott was still a little girl on the wild Nebraska prairie, she had met and kept company with her family’s many unusual house guests, including suffragist heroines Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone. Before she had started school, Grace had already given several years of childhood service to the new women’s suffrage movement of the Midwest, working alongside her remarkable mother and father, who were leading activists of that time and place.
Grace’s parents were looked upon as eccentrics by the people of their little prairie town. And Grace, too, was always considered “different.” She was regularly in trouble at school, and her sister Edith records a typical episode of a teacher saying, with exasperation, “Grace I don’t know what to do with you! I’ll have to speak with your mother.” To which Grace replied, “But Mother doesn’t know what to do with me, either. And sometimes I don’t know what to do with myself.”
This combination — of abundant energy on one hand and of uncertainty as to purpose on the other — kept Grace in a painful psychological quandary for many of her early years. Upon graduating from high school she hesitated, for over a decade, before committing herself to a path in life. At the age of twenty-nine she was still living at home with her parents and working at a modest teaching job at the local high school.
Then, in the first years of the twentieth century, Grace Abbott finally made her leap into the world. Within little more than a decade, she went from working in a modest position at her hometown high school, to being the most powerful and highest ranking woman in the entire U.S. government. She was slow to start, but when she got going, she was explosive.
In 1907, Grace Abbott boldly left behind her well-to-do rural home to live for several years in the midst of the desperately poor immigrants of urban Chicago alongside her mentor, Nobel Prize-winner Jane Addams. There — settled among the newly arrived Greeks and Poles and Russian Jews of the neighborhood — Abbott stood up in court for a young Bohemian victim of rape; she organized help for crippled and defrauded Italian laborers; she brought hope and pragmatic solutions to the problems of thousands of America’s newest citizens.
Grace also worked as a muckraking journalist for the Chicago Evening Post. There she told a wide audience of readers about the plight of “the lost immigrant girls” — young women newly arrived to the U.S., speaking little or no English, who were being kidnapped and forced into prostitution and slave labor. And, as the Director of the Immigrants’ Protective League, she became an influential national leader, defending the rights of her immigrant friends before even the President of the United States.
Director Abbott soon thereafter became the first person appointed by the U.S. to a committee of the League of Nations — an event that was hailed at New York’s “Women’s Council,” according to one witness, “as if it were the opening of heaven itself.”
At last, Abbott was named the top woman in the U.S. government: leading, for many years, the bitterly contested national fight against child labor as Chief of the U.S. Children’s Bureau.
She often took, for her trailblazing efforts, the calumny of male politicians. She was decried as “a would-be woman boss carrying out Shylock political deals” and as “a menopausal maniac with a Mussolini complex.” In response to these insults, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt came to her friend’s defense by calling Grace Abbott “one of the great women of our day … a definite strength which we count on for use in battle.”
Abbott’s own replies to her adversaries were equally forthright. When confronted with the then frequent question as to why any woman should “choose the strenuous life” of public service, she responded by criticizing her critics as “lotus-eaters, who prefer to live in a gray twilight in which there is neither victory nor defeat.”
“It is impossible for them to understand,” she said, “that to have had a part in the struggle — to have done what one could — is in itself the reward of effort and the comfort in defeat.”
* * *
Grace Abbott lived at the heart of her generation’s most decisive battles for social justice. Her time as the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. government was that crucial historical moment when women were at last establishing their permanent place in the nation’s political life. Her influence on the succeeding generations of women in public service was, consequently, vast.
Chief Abbott was the first woman in American history to be nominated to a Presidential cabinet post: Secretary of Labor in the Hoover administration. She was also, therefore, the first woman attacked for aspiring to such a position. She became the center of a volatile national campaign — during which her nomination was supported by the likes of civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois and resisted, ironically and successfully, by Hoover himself.
Abbott’s personal defeat in her hopes for the cabinet position was, nonetheless, a victory in the progress of women in government. For she was, in effect, the first soldier on the beach-head; the one who took the brunt of sniper-fire and thus enabled the next woman-nominee, Frances Perkins, to make her way through to the opposition’s stronghold.
But Abbott’s political achievements went much deeper than this sort of sacrificial offering. As Chief of the United States Children’s Bureau, she ran the very first federal grants-in-aid welfare program in U.S. history: the influential Maternity and Infancy Act. And she was the only trained social worker at the top levels of American government at the onset of the Great Depression. Accordingly, her efforts led the way to the creation of the Federal Emergency Relief effort during the Depression, of the Social Security Act, and of international childrens work that later came to fruition in the United Nation’s UNICEF program.
Throughout her life, Grace Abbott’s method of work was intellectual without being academic. Frances Perkins, Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, described it this way: “Grace Abbott put herself in direct contact with poverty and trouble, letting her own experience show her what needed to be done.” And then she did it.
Along the way, Grace created an important literary heritage as well. She utilized the many communication forums of her day: from magazine articles and pamphlets (including some of the best-sellers of the government presses) to public speeches and motion pictures. When radio broadcasting became possible, Abbott seized upon this new venue, too, with a weekly series airing on N.B.C., thus becoming one of the first female broadcasters to a national audience.
Over the course of her career, Grace Abbott wrote and spoke extensively concerning a wide array of matters. But her best communiqués are those that deal with children’s rights. It is in this area that the Abbott contribution remains most alive, for her words on child welfare still speak with urgency and call out for action. More than sixty years after her death, her child welfare writings remain alive and able to influence contemporary debate on the “hot button” issues of child labor, education, and health care that continue to dominate the news media of our day.
By reading her speeches of the 1920s and ‘30s, we discover the crucial role which Grace Abbott played in developing one of the great principles in the history of social policy: that a child does not belong exclusively to its parents or guardians; but that it is, from the earliest age, a unique member of the society into which it is born; and that, furthermore, the society has obligations to each and every one of its children — responsibilities to make certain that the child is granted its fundamental human rights to health, to protection from abuse, and to education.
Grace Abbott was, of course, not alone in putting forward this idea. But she was among the forefront of those who proposed and established, through painstaking legislative and administrative work, the principle of government responsibility for child welfare. The results of this quiet social revolution — as evidenced in the improved opportunities for the health and education of the vast masses of people — must be counted among the great developments in the history of the human race. And one that we are, even now, merely in the beginning stage of.
The shift in social welfare conditions in the past hundred years has been so pervasive that we sometimes take it quite for granted. But it is useful for us to remember that much effort was required to effect these changes. A small town Ohio newspaper editorial made this point in 1934, saying: “Today it is comparatively easy to persuade any community that its children must be safeguarded against disease and malnutrition; that for their youthful shortcomings must be meted out a different sort of punishment than is given adult criminals; and that young folk are better off in schools than in factories. All this is an accepted fact today. But it is undoubtedly due to the steady campaign of the Children’s Bureau. And the driving force behind that bureau was Miss Grace Abbott.”
As we encounter the story of Grace’s life and read her provocative words, we come to understand why she inspired both deep admiration and violent attacks. We see how it is possible for one writer to call her work “the greatest thing ever done in America in behalf of the activities of Hell.” While, at the same time, another affectionately dubs her, “Mother to America’s forty-three million children.”
We see, too, why Franklin Roosevelt spoke with such deep admiration for this woman whom he addressed as a “great humanitarian” who “rendered service of inestimable value to the children and mothers and fathers of the country.”
Of course, Abbott could at times — like many another pioneer and revolutionary — be impatient, a bit self-righteous with her enemies, and even irritatingly insistent upon her ideals. Still, her story offers us a compelling example of how one middle-class, middle-American — a longtime member of the Republican Party — chose to devote her life to causes that are often shrugged off as “somebody else’s problem.” And, by so doing, she changed our country more profoundly than have many Presidents.
When Chief Abbott — only sixty years old — died in 1939, Congresswoman Caroline O’Day paid an homage that went straight to the heart of her finest achievements, saying that, “Grace Abbott’s influence will extend to future generations — not only in our own country, but in many parts of the world. Thousands of mothers and children are alive today who might have died but for the beneficent activities which Grace Abbott initiated or furthered.”
And Senator George Norris chided his listeners for the lack of attention they paid to Abbott’s indispensable work, pointing out that “We Americans love to honor our leaders, but too often we forget the noble men and women, like Grace Abbott, who have — silently and unknown — accomplished more for the betterment of humanity than has come from the clamor and publicity which surrounds the acts of the powerful and influential.”
U.S. Representative Edward Keating summed up the feelings of many others when he said, quite simply, “To me there was something about Grace Abbott which always suggested Joan of Arc.”
In her radio programs and speeches of the 1920s and ‘30s, Grace Abbott would sometimes address the younger people in her audience. In one Depression-era talk, she frankly discussed the difficulties of her own lifework and, at the same time, made a plea for her young listeners to consider taking up the difficult life of social service themselves. She said:
Injustice and cruelty to children are as old as the world. We have made some progress. We see things more clearly now than in the past; and with clearer vision we can do more, go farther.
Without apology, then, I ask you to use courageously your intelligence, your strength, and your good will toward children in the progressive removal of the economic barriers which have retarded the full development of children in the past. There will, I warn you, be discouragements and disappointments. But the cause of children must triumph ultimately. The important thing is that we should be on our way.
Perhaps you may ask, ‘Does the road lead uphill all the way?’ And I must answer, ‘Yes, to the very end.’ But if I offer you a long, hard struggle, I can also promise you great rewards. Justice for all children is the high ideal in a democracy.
That simple promise: of a life well-lived, an existence well-used — which she herself discovered only through a painful, often lonely lifetime spent among “the shock troops” — is Grace Abbott’s great and lasting victory.
More information available at:
The author can be reached at: