Grace Abbott (November 17, 1878 – June 19, 1939) was an educator, author, political lobbyist, and social worker who specifically focused on the advancement of child welfare. Younger sister to the equally renowned Edith Abbott, Grace was born in Grand Island, Nebraska. Her contributions to the fields of sociology, education, and politics have proven to be long-lasting. She is member of the Nebraska Hall of Fame.
One of four children, Grace Abbott was raised in a home environment that placed an emphasis on education, religious independence, and general equality. Through the teachings of their mother, Elizabeth, the Abbott children were made well aware of the historical injustices placed on Native Americans throughout the region of Grand Island. Paired with a knowledge of the women’s suffrage movement, Grace developed a concern for the oppressed that would later lead her into areas of child welfare and immigrant rights.
After graduating from Grand Island College in 1898, Grace worked as a high school teacher before embarking further on a career in social work. In 1902, she began her graduate studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and again in 1904 at the University of Chicago.
Upon relocating to Chicago in 1907, Abbott took up residency in Jane Addams' Hull House, a center for proactive women engaging in areas such as the early feminist movement and social reform. Hull House also served as a settlement house, a safe haven for the poor. It was while there that Abbott launched her career in social work while continuing her studies at the University of Chicago, eventually receiving a Ph.D. in political science in 1909.
In later years, during a 1938 health checkup, doctors discovered that Grace suffered from the disease multiple myeloma. Her death came one year later, at the age of 60.
During her time at Hull House, Abbott was a member of several committees and organizations for the protection of immigrants and the advancement of child welfare. In particular, she served as director of the Immigrants Protective League founded by close friend Sophonisba Breckinridge. Abbott’s involvement in this organization began her campaign for protective legislation not only in regards to the immigrant population, but on behalf of women and children as well. In 1917, while studying conditions of New York’s Ellis Island, Abbott published perhaps her most recognized publication, The Immigrant and the Community (1917). Her findings, paired with a long-standing support of the disadvantaged, later compelled Abbott to appear before Congress in opposition to immigrant restrictions.
Between 1910 and 1917, Abbott served as a professor in the University of Chicago’s School of Social Administration, a graduate school co-founded in 1920 by her sister Edith. When appointed director of the Child-Labor Division of the U.S. Children’s Bureau in 1917, Grace relocated to Washington DC where she organized and administered the first federal limitation of child labor. Though this statute, the Keating-Owen Act, was later declared unconstitutional, Abbott successfully incorporated child labor restrictions into future pieces of legislation.
In 1919, Grace returned to Illinois to serve as director of the Illinois State Immigrants Commission, only to be named the head of the U.S. Children’s Bureau just two years later. It was within this organization that Abbott achieved her greatest success, campaigning for the limitation and eventual restriction of child labor. During this time, Abbott also helped to administer the Sheppard-Towner Act (1921), which, though later struck, allocated federal aid to states for the implementation of programs that sustained infant and new mother health.
Throughout her career, Grace Abbot remained an affiliate of the Women's Trade Union League, alongside members Jane Addams and Eleanor Roosevelt. Abbott also served as an unofficial U.S. representative at the League of Nations Advisory Council on Traffic in Women and Children from 1922 until her eventual retirement from government service in 1934.
Grace Abbott was the author of several sociological texts, including the two-volume The Child and the State (1938). She was also responsible for incorporating social statistics and research into legislative policy-making, while launching numerous investigations into child labor violations within industrial factories throughout the United States.
Spending a portion of her time as a political lobbyist for social issues in Washington, DC, Abbott pioneered the process of incorporating sociological data relating to child labor, juvenile delinquency, and dependency into the lawmaking process. A member of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Council on Economic Security, she also helped to draft the Social Security Act of 1935. At this time, Abbott also served as a U.S. delegate to the International Labor Organization.
Grace Abbott’s historical contributions on the behalf of women, children, and immigrants have earned her the recognition as one of the most influential females in American history, including being voted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1976. As eulogized by her sister Edith upon her death in 1939, “There was always infinite variety with Grace as a companion. Her resources were endless—and always unexpected” (Costin 2003). Her great success in the field of social work reflected a long-lived determination to protect the nation’s most vulnerable populations.
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