The Abbott Sisters: Edith and Grace

Sisters Edith and Grace Abbott made unique contributions to education and social work not only in Nebraska but on a national and international level. Edith Abbott became the first woman dean in the School of Social Services at the University of Chicago (1924-42), and the first dean of a graduate school in an American university. A native of Grand Island, she taught at a Grand Island high school before attending the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, from which she graduated in 1901. Abbott earned her Ph.D. degree at the University of Chicago.

As dean of the School of Social Services at the University of Chicago, Edith advocated field work and training for social workers, and was an advisor for federal aid in relief during the Depression. She also was an advisor to the International Office of the League of Nations, inquiring into the problems of women in industry, child labor, immigration, legislation, pensions, wages, and police brutality. She died in Grand Island in 1957.

Grace, Edith’s younger sister, attended the Grand Island Baptist College and then taught in high schools in Grand Island and in Broken Bow, Nebraska. In 1907 she went to Chicago to continue her education at the University of Chicago. She began her career in social work in 1908, working with immigrants at Hull House in Chicago. For nine years she directed the Immigrants Protective League. Concerned about the welfare of children and infants, she became a leader in the fight for federal legislation protecting children’s rights. Through her efforts, the Sheppard-Towner Act, coordinating federal and state aid for mothers and children, was passed.

In 1921 President Warren Harding appointed Miss Abbott head of the Children’s Bureau in the Department of Labor. She continued in this position until 1934 when she resigned to become a professor of public welfare at the University of Chicago. Grace Abbott died in Chicago on June 19, 1939. She was voted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1976.

Read more about the family in the introduction to History Nebraska’s Abbott Family Papers.

Photos: Top: Edith Abbott (Wikimedia Commons). Below: Grace Abbott (History Nebraska RG2916-2-8)


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