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Grace Abbott

Grace Abbott (17 November 1878–19 June 1939) contributed to many social and legal issues during the first half of the 20th century, including women’s suffrage, child labor laws, and immigrant assistance. She pioneered research and legislation used by congressmen and presidents to change laws regarding the safety and welfare of people in need. Due to her devotion to numerous social issues, she became a leader in the quest for social justice worldwide, especially in the United States.

From the beginning of her life in Grand Island, Nebraska, Abbott’s childhood was anything but ordinary. Her parents, Othman and Elizabeth Griffin Abbott, believed their four children needed to be taught that every person deserves justice and equality. Her father, an attorney, encouraged his children to watch his courtroom debates from the balcony. This belief in equality was punctuated by her mother’s stories about her family’s work with the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. She also sought opportunities for her daughters that were not common for females during the time period.

Though Abbott hoped to attend a private high school in Omaha, family financial difficulties required her to attend the local Grand Island High School. Upon graduation in 1895, she enrolled in the newly established Grand Island Baptist College, and graduated three years later. At the age of 20, Abbott became a high school teacher in Broken Bow, Nebraska, and instructed students in plane and solid geometry, algebra, Caesar, German, rhetoric, and English literature.

Abbott entered the University of Chicago for graduate study. There, she earned a master of philosophy degree and wrote her thesis The Legal Position of Married Women in the United States (1909).

While in Chicago, Abbott resided at Hull-House, founded by Jane Addams, a leader in the progressive movement. Hull-House was a settlement established for area residents interested in debating ideas and contributing to social reform. It was located in the heart of a crowded immigrant community that included Italians, Russians, Polish Jews, Irish, Germans, Greeks, and Bohemians. Residents of Hull-House worked together to provide services for the immigrant community, including an employment agency, day care facility, public playground, theatre, public kitchen, and citizenship-preparation class (University of Illinois–Chicago 2003). It was the perfect setting for Abbott and her sister, Edith, who began to advocate for people in need. At this time, the Abbott sisters formed a union of research and action, forever binding the two together as experts in the field of social reform. Edith Abbott was known as the researcher and scholar, whereas Grace Abbott became an initiator and facilitator of action projects.

Abbott began to make speeches and organize for women’s suffrage. She was appointed Director of the Immigrants’ Protective League, an advocacy group for foreign-born Americans. As Costin (1983, 71) noted, the group sought to facilitate “the assimilation of immigrants to the extent necessary for them to secure and keep self-sustaining employment, support their children in the American school life, become citizens with voting and other political rights and, in general, gain access to the opportunities they envisioned when they left their own countries.” The League helped immigrants find relatives, jobs, and residences—all major concerns for people new to the country.

In 1912, Grace Abbott was called before the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization to testify against a literacy test for citizenship. Five years later, Abbott was appointed head of the Children’s Bureau, a role she kept until her resignation in 1934. During her tenure as the Director of the Children’s Bureau, she coordinated the White House Conference on the care of dependent children and led the Conference on Standards of Child Welfare, which established the standards for prenatal and postnatal care of children. In addition, Abbott represented the United States in the League of Nations as an expert concerning the international trafficking of women for prostitution. Abbott’s years at the Children’s Bureau were its “glory days” (Costin 1983, vii). For Abbott, these years were a culmination of her advocacy for immigrants, women, and especially children. According to Abbott (1941, 197), “The welfare of children requires the development of social services . . . schools, playgrounds, measures for the promotion of the health and general welfare, as well as provision for the dependent and the delinquent. Such services are costly. They too have an economic basis, but they create social values, for which money is not a good common denominator.”

Abbott believed that social reform was cyclical in nature. For example, before a mother can help a child with educational and medical needs, she must be helped with her vocational needs. If the mother’s need continues to be ignored, the mother will never have an opportunity to assist her family. In The Child and the State, Abbott (1938, 5) wrote, “The position the mother occupies in the family directly affects the welfare of the child, and it is therefore necessary to summarize the handicaps that the common law placed on her as a wife and mother.” In Abbott’s attempts to bring one issue to the forefront, often times, other harmful situations for women and children were revealed. One of these issues of concern was child labor.

During the early 1900s, children who worked in factories were growing up without education. This condition became an issue with the increase in spending for public education. As Abbott (1938, 262) noted, “The first and continuing argument for the curtailment of working hours and the raising of the minimum age was that education was necessary in a democracy and working children could not attend school.” However, Abbott faced many who opposed child labor laws. These opponents included factory owners and poverty-stricken parents who believed that the sacrifice of their children was their only way of survival. With regard to the poor, Abbott stated (Costin 1983, 157), “Child labor and poverty are inevitably bound together and if you continue to use the labor of children as the treatment for the social disease of poverty, you will have both poverty and child labor to the end of time.” After much debate, Congress finally passed the first child labor law, the Owen-Keating Bill, in 1916.

When Abbott retired from the Children’s Bureau, she joined her sister as a faculty member of the University of Chicago’s School of Social Science Administration. Upon hearing of her retirement, Eleanor Roosevelt (Costin 1983, 215) stated, “For so long I have thought of you as a tower of strength in the Children’s Bureau that I can hardly bear to think of anybody else trying to take your place.”

During the remainder of her life, Grace Abbott continued to be an advocate for children, women, immigrants, and the poor through her editorship with the Social Service Review and in her public welfare administration classes at the University of Chicago. Abbott taught her students that, before preventative measures could be taken to overcome a problem, the facts of the matter first must be gathered and analyzed.

During a 1938 health check, doctors discovered that she was suffering from multiple myeloma, a disease that caused her death one year later. Shortly after her sister’s death, Edith Abbott discovered many lectures, notes, letters, and research, which she compiled to create From Relief to Social Security (1941), a final advocacy document for the children of this nation from a truly devoted individual.

Contributed by: Robin Robinson Kapavik, The University of Texas at Austin

Abbott, G. 1909. The legal position of married women in the United States: A study of eighteen selected states. Ph.M. diss., University of Chicago.
Abbott, G. 1938. The child and the state: Selected documents, with introductory notes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Abbott, G. 1941. From relief to social security: The development of the new public welfare services and their administration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Costin, L. B. 1983. Two sisters for social justice: A biography of Grace and Edith Abbott. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
University of Illinois–Chicago. 2003. Biographical sketch of Jane Addams. Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. Chicago: University of Illinois. Back to Top

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