Date of this Version
Published in Great Plains Research 20.1 (Spring 2010): 148-49.
Those familiar with the Abbott sisters generally regard Grace as the doer, Edith as the thinker. Both were leading Progressive-Era reformers, but while Edith made her mark as a pioneering social work educator and theorist, Grace—a one-time resident of Hull House who fought for women’s suffrage, immigrant rights, and child welfare—went on to become the second chief of the U.S. Children’s Bureau and gained a reputation as a powerful advocate and effective administrator. Along the way, however, Grace Abbott also wrote a number of articles and speeches that reflect deep thought as well as strong beliefs in equality and progress. This collection allows the reader to grasp the full range of her concerns and trace patterns in her thinking over more than three decades.
Reflecting the major foci of her work, the volume is divided into sections on immigrants, children, and women. The first two are introduced with reflections on Grace’s life and work by sister Edith, the third with a tribute to Grace by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. Abbott’s ideas, the pieces reveal, were rooted in practical experience as well as analysis and reflection. Her understanding of young immigrant women, for example, drew on a trip to Poland, where she saw firsthand the conditions that prompted them to undertake the risks of migration. Surprisingly, she found, it was not poverty that drove them, but “a fever running through the entire peasantry.” Nevertheless, Abbott’s experience also taught her that these same women, once arrived in the U.S., desperately missed their homes and familiar culture, and she pleaded with educators to respect cultural differences rather than enforce assimilation to American ideals. (Indeed, she contended, it was difficult to discern what those ideals might be.) Her approach anticipated by many decades what today we would call “multiculturalism.”