Grace Abbott was born in 1878 in Grand Island, Nebraska. After graduating from a Baptist college there, she became a local high school teacher. She left Nebraska in 1907, however, to study law at the University of Chicago. While in law school, Abbott developed an interest in social work and began a residency at Jane Addams’ Hull House in 1908. That same year, she became the director of the Immigrants’ Protective League, and stopped her law education with a Master’s degree in 1909.
The Chicago-based Immigrants’ Protective League worked to prevent the exploitation of immigrants and help them adjust to life in the United States. During her time as its director, from 1909 until 1917, she fought to gain new state legislation that protected immigrants from exploitation by both private employment agencies and private immigrant-specific “banks.” She also organized a state plan that would enforce mandatory school attendance for the children of immigrants. In 1912, she persuaded President William Howard Taft to veto an act that would have instituted mandatory literacy tests in order to gain entry into the country.
Abbott was also a member of the Women’s Trade Union League, where she pushed for better working conditions in the garment industry. Due to this and her work in child labor, she was called to Washington, D.C. by Chicago colleague Julia Lathrop. Lathrop, as the first director of the United States Children’s Bureau, had succeeded in pushing forth national child labor legislation. The Keating-Owen Act, passed by Congress in 1916, assigned enforcement of its protections to the Children’s Bureau. Lathrop created Child Labor Division within the bureau to carry out this responsibility, and appointed Abbott as its director. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional a year later and the division was shut down.
After a brief stint as the executive secretary of the Illinois State Immigrants’ Commission, where she also served as chair of the child labor division, she returned to Washington in 1921. President Warren G. Harding appointed her to succeed Lathrop as chief of the Children’s Bureau. In that position, Abbott successfully had the Sheppard-Towner Act passed. This law issued the first federal grants for the aid of children’s social welfare and authorized the federal government to cooperate with state governments in the promotion of maternal and child healthcare. She also started and helped to fund over one hundred research programs, mostly conducted by the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. Starting in 1922 she served as the U.S. representative to the League of Nations’ Advisory Committee on the Trafficking of Women and Child Welfare.
Abbott would serve as President of the National Conference of Social Work and was a member of the committee that organized the first actual Conference on Social Work, which was held in Paris in 1928. She would retire from government service in 1934. A small newspaper in Ohio summarized her legacy upon retirement, stating “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.”
Abbott would work as a professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration until her death in 1939.
Photo: Library of Congress