Grace Abbott

In Nebraska Notables by admin

Grace Abbott was born in Grand Island, Nebraska on November 17, 1878, to Othman Ali Abbott and Elizabeth Meleta Griffin Abbott, both of whom were raised as abolitionists, believing that slavery was a sin. She is the sister of Edith Abbott, who is also a well-known social reformer who worked hard protecting the rights of children. Her father was Nebraska’s first Lieutenant Governor.

Both sisters were influenced by their mother, an avid believer in equal rights for women.

Abbott attended the Grand Island Baptist College and the University of Nebraska, and went on to teach high school in Grand Island and in Broken Bow, Nebraska. In 1907, she left for Chicago, Illinois to continue her education at the University of Chicago where she received her master of philosophy degree.

Abbott began her social work career working with immigrants at the Hull House in Chicago, where she was a resident until 1917. For nine years, she worked as the director of the Immigrants Protective League, which was a program designed to help immigrants adjust to their new life, and protect them from mistreatment. During this time, Abbott became a trusted associate of Nobel Prize winner Jane Addams.

Her publications were fundamental to the new field of sociology and provide an excellent resource for historians today. Beyond that, Grace Abbott was among the first female broadcasters to a national audience (“Your Child” NBC, 1920s). Her trailblazing social service work has been credited with making significant contributions to the creation of the Social Security Act and the United Nation’s UNICEF program.

Abbott led fights against child labor from the coal mines of West Virginia to the factories of Massachusetts. She fought for the cause of infant and child health care in the slums of Chicago and the villages of the Appalachian Mountains. She is credited with saving thousands of children’s and immigrants’ lives and improving those of millions more.

From 1922 to 1934, Grace Abbott served as the official representative of the U.S. on the League of Nations’ advisory committee on child welfare, and was the first woman in U.S. history to be nominated for a presidential Cabinet post (proposed as secretary of labor by Herbert Hoover). As head of the federal Children’s Bureau, she served under four presidents: Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt. As chief, she influenced public opinion in favor of child labor reform and related social legislation.

Grace Abbott’s greatest contribution was in the area of social security legislation. Her book, Public Assistance – American Principles and Policies, was the result of many years of research and teaching. She once remarked that the two great events in her life were the constitutional amendment for universal suffrage, giving women the right to vote, and the passage of the Social Security Act.

At the time of Grace Abbott’s death, in 1939, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt called her, “one of the great women of our day … a definite strength which we could count on for use in battle.” She was buried back in Nebraska alongside her sister, Edith Abbott. Abbott was also voted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1976.

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