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Famous Women in Social Work

Last year, we found some fabulous influential women in history- who were also social workers – to profile on social media. Enjoy these profiles of a few social work stars – including some you might not expect.

Jane Addams

Jane Addams is probably the most famous social worker of all, and she did her most famous work right around the corner from ChicagoCAC! Hull House, one of the nation’s most notable “settlement houses” became a model of on-site social services (a bit like ChicagoCAC, actually) and community engagement. 

Addams was also a strong child advocate, founding what would become the Juvenile Protective Association. She campaigned for women’s voting rights because she felt women had intimate knowledge of social issues, and voting would help them fulfill their community responsibilities. She called on middle-class women to take on civic responsibilities and give back to their communities. Her sociological observations and contributions firmly establish her as the “Mother of Social Work” and she shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her work. 

A little-known fact: Addams’ relationships with women were often personal as well as professional, and she might be considered a lesbian by today’s standards. Her first partner, Ellen Gates Starr, was Hull House’s cofounder, and she had a decades-long relationship with Mary Rozet Smith, who emotionally and financially supported Jane’s work. 

Thyra J. Edwards

Thyra J. Edwards is another famous social worker with Chicago roots: it was where she received her professional and practical social work education in the mid-1930s. Edwards began her activist and social work career with the Chicago Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a Black union, but she is perhaps best known for her international efforts working with child refugees; first of the Spanish Civil War and then, notably, of the Holocaust. To quote the excellent profile from the Social Welfare History Project Below, “At a time when the social work profession in the United States believed that black social workers should only focus on blacks in America, Edwards worked with people of all races, nationalities, and ethnicities.” Edwards was also a journalist who reported for the Chicago Defender while in Spain during their civil war, and her papers are archived at the Chicago History Museum.  

Amelia Earhart

Yes, famed aviator Amelia Earhart was also a social worker. In the 1920s, she became a social worker at the Denison House in Boston, a settlement house much like Jane Addams’ Hull House serving immigrants in their community. Earhart was in charge of adult education and supervised a girls’ program, where she taught many neighborhood girls to play basketball. Sheeven was Denison House’s delegate to a national settlement house conference, and according to the Social Welfare History Project, she stood out as “as one of the most promising social workers of her generation”. 

Earhart had started flying lessons before her social work career, and continued them until she was offered the chance to be a passenger on a trans-Atlantic flight in 1928. Though she didn’t pilot the plane that time, the trip made her an overnight sensation–and she made her own trans-Atlantic flight in 1932. Earhart became the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to California, and from Los Angeles to Mexico City. She was then, and continues to be, a model for adventurous women: she was the President of the first female pilot’s association, the Ninety-Nines. She even became deeply involved in designing and marketing her own clothing line. Unfortunately, Earhart is perhaps most notable for disappearing on her attempt to fly around the world in 1939. No confirmed trace of her has been found since. 

Social Workers In Politics

The careers of these influential politicians serve as a good reminder that social workers can be found in unexpected places, and that the presence of women can shape our political future.  

  • Jeanette Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress, and her first legislative act was to introduce an amendment to let women vote. That legislation? It eventually became the 19th amendment to the Constitution, which granted women voting rights. She was a noted champion for social causes, and notably was the only member of Congress to vote against entering WWI and WWII.
  • Frances Perkins was the first ever female cabinet secretary as FDR’s Secretary of Labor. She is credited with helping pass a federal minimum wage law, and helped draft key pieces of labor legislation like the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Social Security Act. 
  • Barbara Mikulski was the first Democratic woman to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, and the longest serving woman in the history of Congress. Her legislative focuses included childcare and the gender wage gap. 
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