Grace Abbott

Advocate for Immigrants and Children

Grace Abbott
Grace Abbott. Courtesy Library of Congress

Grace Abbott Facts 

Known for: New Deal era chief of the federal Children’s Bureau, child labor law advocate, Hull House resident, sister of Edith Abbott
Occupation: social worker, educator, government official, writer, activist
Dates: November 17, 1878 – June 19, 1939

Grace Abbott Biography:

During Grace Abbott’s early childhood in Grand Island, Nebraska, her family was fairly well off. Her father was the Lieutenant Governor of the state, and her mother was an activist who had been an abolitionist and advocated women’s rights including woman suffrage.

  Grace, like her older sister Edith, was expected to go to college.

But the 1893 financial depression, plus the drought afflicting the rural part of Nebraska where the family lived, meant that plans had to change.  Grace’s older sister Edith had gone to boarding school at Brownell in Omaha, but the family could not afford to send Grace to the school.  Edith returned to Grand Island to teach and to save money to finance her further education. 

Grace studied at and graduated in 1898 from Grand Island College, a Baptist school.  She moved to Custer County to teach after graduation, but then returned home to recover from a bout of typhoid. In 1899, when Edith left her teaching position at the high school in Grand Island, Grace took her position.

Grace was able to study law at the University of Nebraska from 1902 to 1903. She was the only woman in the class. She did not graduate, and returned home, to teach again.

In 1906 she attended a summer program at the University of Chicago, and the next year moved to Chicago to study there full time.  Mentors who took an interest in her education including Ernst Freund and Sophonisba Breckenridge.  Edith studied political science, graduating with a Ph.D. in 1909.

While still a student, she founded, with Breckenridge, the Juvenile Protection Association.

She took a position with the organization and, from 1908, lived at Hull House, where her sister Edith Abbott joined her.

Grace Abbott in 1908 became the first director of the Immigrants’ Protective League, which had been founded by Judge Julian Mach along with Freund and Breckenridge.  She served in that position until 1917.  The organization enforced existing legal protections of immigrants against mistreatment by employers and banks, and also advocated for more protective laws.

To understand the conditions of immigrants, Grace Abbott studied their experience at Ellis Island.  She testified in 1912 in Washington, D.C., for a House of Representatives Committee against the literacy test proposed for immigrants; despite her advocacy, the law passed in 1917.

Abbott worked briefly in Massachusetts for a legislative investigation of immigrant conditions. She was offered a permanent position, but chose to return to Chicago.

Among her other activities, she joined Breckenridge and other women in membership in the Women’s Trade Union League, working to protect working women, many of them immigrants.  She also advocated for better enforcement of compulsory attendance at school for immigrant children – the alternative was that the children would be employed a low pay rates in factory work.

In 1911, she took the first of several trips to Europe to try to understand the situation there which led to so many choosing to immigrate.

Working at the School of Civics and Philanthropy, where her sister also worked, she wrote up her findings on immigrant conditions as research papers.  In 1917 she published her book, The Immigrant and the Community.

In 1912, President William Howard Taft signed into law a bill establishing the Children’s Bureau, an agency to protect a “right to childhood.”  The first director was Julia Lathrop, a friend of the Abbott sisters who had also been a Hull House resident and involved with the School of Civics and Philanthropy.  Grace went to Washington, DC, in 1917 to work for the Children’s Bureau as director of the Industrial Division, which was to inspect factories and enforce child labor laws.

In 1916 the Keating-Owen Act prohibited the use of some child labor in interstate commerce, and Abbott’s department was to enforce that law.  The law was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1918, but the government continued its opposition to child labor through provisions in contracts for war goods.

During the 1910s, Abbott worked for woman suffrage and also joined in the work of Jane Addams for peace.

In 1919, Grace Abbott had left the Children’s Bureau for Illinois, where she headed the Illinois State Immigrants’ Commission until 1921. Then funding ended, and she and others reestablished the Immigrants Protective League.

In 1921 and 1924, federal laws severely restricted immigration though Grace Abbott and her allies had supported, instead, laws protecting immigrants from victimization and abuse, and providing for their successful immigration into a diverse America.

In 1921, Abbott returned to Washington, appointed by President William Harding as successor to Julia Lathrop as head of the Children’s Bureau, charged with administering the Sheppard-Towner Act designed to “reduce maternal and infant mortality” through federal funding.

In 1922, another child labor act was declared unconstitutional, and Abbott and her allies began working for a child labor constitutional amendment which was submitted to the states in 1924.

Also during her Children’s Bureau years, Grace Abbott worked with organizations which helped establish social work as a profession.  She served as president of the National Conference on Social Work from 1923 to 1924.

From 1922 to 1934, Abbott represented the U.S. at the League of Nations on the Advisory Committee on Traffic in Women and Children.

In 1934, Grace Abbott resigned from her position heading the Children’s Bureau due to increasingly bad health.  She was convinced to return to Washington to work with the President’s Council on Economic Security that year and the next, helping to write the new Social Security law to include benefits to dependent children.

She moved back to Chicago in 1934 to live with her sister Edith again; neither had ever married.  While struggling with tuberculosis, she continued to work and travel.

She taught at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration from 1934 to 1939, where her sister was the dean.  She also served, during those years, as editor of The Social Service Review which her sister had founded in 1927 with Sophonisba Breckenridge.

In 1935 and 1937, she was a United States delegate to the International Labor Organization.  In 1938, she published the 2-volume treatment of federal and state laws and programs protecting children, The Child and the State.

Grace Abbott died in June of 1939.  In 1941, her papers were published posthumously as From Relief to Social Security.

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Elizabeth Griffin (about 1846 – 1941): high school principal, pacifist, abolitionist, and advocate of women’s suffrage
  • Father: Othman Ali Abbott (1845 – 1935): lawyer, business investor, politician
  • Siblings: Othman Ali Abbott Jr., Grace Abbott, Arthur Griffin Abbott

Education:

  • Grand Island College, 1898
  • University of Nebraska, from 1902
  • University of Chicago, from 1904 – Ph.D. in political science, 1909