Women’s Impact on Social Work

In the month of March, two very important subjects are honored: women’s history and social work. It comes as no surprise that these topics are connected. Social workers are predominantly female, comprising 83% of the workforce. Unfortunately, the perception of social work as a “feminine” industry is believed to be one of the reasons for a gender pay gap in this field (https://mswcareers.com/social-work-gender-gap). In the face of this disparity, I’d like to take time to celebrate the strong women who developed and advanced the social work field. We owe them all a debt of gratitude!

The following information is from https://www.endeavors.org/community-services-news/6-women-who-changed-social-work-forever/:

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954):  Highly educated and incredibly influential, Mary Church Terrell was an African-American educator, writer, civil rights activist, and social reformer who conveyed her ideas with intelligence and grace. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, she began her professional career in the academic community, later moving to lectures and writings on race relations and women’s rights. In 1904, she represented black women at the International Congress of Women in Berlin, delivering her remarkable address in three languages.

Grace Abbott (1878-1939):  After serving as a high school teacher for 10 years, Grace Abbott moved to Chicago to begin her career in social work. She quickly developed a fierce passion for immigration and child labor reform, working with marginalized populations by day and writing opinion pieces for the Chicago Evening Post by night. Eventually, she became the director of the child labor division of the U.S. Children’s Bureau. 

Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973):  “I may be the first woman member of Congress,” said Jeannette Rankin when she was elected to the House of Representatives in 1916, “but I won’t be the last.” An influential politician and member of the women’s suffrage movement, Rankin began her advocacy career as a social worker, later returning to the field after her political career. Her passion was giving a platform to voices that were usually silenced or marginalized. 

Thyra J. Edwards (1897-1953):  An African-American social worker, labor activist, educator, and journalist, Thyra J. Edwards was extremely passionate about children. After training in social work at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, Edwards worked tirelessly to improve child welfare legislation, eventually founding her own children’s home.

Harriet Rinaldo (1906-1981):  For nearly thirty years, Rinaldo worked with the Veterans Administration in Washington D.C. During this time, she helped shape and create the standards for caring for Veterans. She recruited hundreds of social workers, innovated essential systems, and worked tirelessly to advocate for Veteran health! 

Dorothy Irene Height (1912-2010):  Affectionately called “the godmother of the civil rights movement” by President Obama, Dorothy Irene Height made a great and lasting impact on the field of social work. Besides being one of the major female leaders of the civil rights movement, Height also worked tirelessly as an advocate for women, the unemployed, the uneducated, and many more. She served as the president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for forty years, had leadership roles in the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), and the National Council of Negro Women.

And this information is from https://msw.usc.edu/mswusc-blog/9-most-influential-women-in-the-history-of-social-work/:

Jane Addams (1860-1935):  Perhaps the most famous and decorated female social worker, Jane Addams founded one of the world’s first settlement houses – the renowned Hull House in Chicago – and received the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize. Living among those she intended to help in the Hull House, Addams became intimately familiar with the problems of Chicago’s poor and built the House’s services accordingly, adding a library, a gymnasium, and providing classes for adults and children, among many other services. Her work at the ground level earned her subsequent posts on the Chicago Board of Education and the School Management Committee. She founded the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy and became the first female president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections. She later became the president of the Women’s Peace Party and the Women’s International Peace Congress at The Hague.

Mary Ellen Richmond (1861-1928):  Mary Ellen Richmond was one of the first social workers to push for the professionalization and standardization of social work. She is credited with creating the first statement of principles for direct social work practice and is most famous for her speech at the 1897 National Conference of Charities and Correction, where she implored schools to train social workers, calling for standardization in the social work field. Her book “Social Diagnosis” was one of the first social work books to incorporate scientific principles from law, medicine, psychology, psychiatry and history.

Edith Abbott (1876-1957):  A Nebraska native with a master’s degree in social work and a doctorate degree in economics, who studied at both the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics, Edith Abbott spent much of her academic career as dean of the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. During her tenure, she helped to write the Social Security Act of 1935 and founded the Social Service Review, a University of Chicago journal dedicated to publishing “original research on pressing social issues and social welfare policies.” She also served as a consultant to Harry Hopkins, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s advisers, and later became president of the American Association of Schools of Social Work and the National Conference of Social Work.

Frances Perkins (1880–1965):  Frances Perkins was the first woman to be a Presidential Cabinet member, serving as Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt. A lifetime champion of labor reform, Perkins helped pass a minimum wage law and was one of the drafters of the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Social Security Act. The Department of Labor’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. is now named after her.

Grace Coyle (1892-1962):  Grace Coyle is most famous for developing and popularizing group work as a social work practice. Some of her most influential writings include “Social Process in Organized Groups” (1930), “Group Experiences and Democratic Values” (1947) and “Social Science in the Professional Education of Social Workers” (1958), among many others. 

Frances Feldman (1913-2008):  Frances Feldman, a University of Southern California professor and social work pioneer, conducted a groundbreaking study in the 1970s that showed cancer patients faced discrimination in the workplace. Her research provided the first systematic evidence that employers and co-workers often imposed harsh, even illegal conditions on cancer survivors. According to the National Association of Social Workers, several states modified fair employment legislation because of the study. For more than 50 years, Feldman examined the social and psychological meanings of work and life. Her original research on the effect of money stress on families led her to cofound a national network of nonprofit credit counseling services that continues to operate. She also established the first faculty and staff counseling center at USC, now a blueprint for employee assistance programs across the country.

Barbara Mikulski (1936- ):  Senator Mikulski was the first Democratic woman to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, the first woman to win a statewide election in Maryland, and the longest serving woman in the history of Congress. She began her career as a social worker after graduating from the University of Maryland with an M.S.W. She worked with at-risk children in Baltimore and famously prevented construction of a 16-lane highway that may have prevented development of the harbor area and would have cut through the first black home ownership neighborhood. Mikulski is unofficially known as the “Dean of the Senate Women” and is arguably one of the most influential women in the country.

Posted by Michelle Reines, NFPN Executive Director

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