Grace Abbott’s Story
“Justice for all children is the high ideal in a democracy… We must emancipate children from the industrial load that was put upon their shoulders.” – Grace Abbott
Grace Abbott was born in Grand Island, Nebraska on November 17, 1878. Her parents were activists who were involved with the Underground Railroad and active in the women’s suffrage movement. After attending the University of Nebraska and teaching in her hometown, Abbott moved to Chicago, and lived and worked at Hull House, a settlement house founded in 1889 by social reformer Jane Addams. Living among poor immigrant residents of the community, Abbott became an influential advocate for immigrant rights, and served as director of the Immigrants’ Protective League from 1908 to 1917, where she defended asylum seekers from deportation, and lobbied against restrictive immigration policies that excluded non-English speaking immigrants. She was also the official U.S. representative on the League of Nations’ advisory committee on the trafficking of women.
As chief of the U.S. Children’s Bureau in the Department of Labor from 1921 to 1934, Abbot was the highest ranked woman in the U.S. government. She was also the first woman in U.S. history to be nominated to a presidential cabinet post, as the Secretary of Labor in the Hoover administration. Abbott led the fight to end child labor, and introduced groundbreaking programs for maternal and infant care, including the first federally funded social welfare program, the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act of 1921. Abbott wrote and spoke extensively about women and children’s rights, including on her weekly radio series on NBC, which made her one of the first female broadcasters to a national audience. In 1930, Good Housekeeping magazine called Abbott one of the “most influential women in the U.S.” After retiring from the Children’s Bureau, Abbott worked on drafts of the Social Security Act. The policies Abbott helped to create have continued to benefit millions of Americans, and paved the way for federal relief efforts that protect and defend women and children. Grace Abbott died on June 19, 1939.
FEATURED IN THE FILM
Cristina Jiménez is a community organizer, and the executive director and co-founder of United We Dream (UWD), the largest immigrant youth-led network in the country. Born in Ecuador, Jiménez came to the U.S. with her family at the age of 13. Under Jiménez’s leadership, UWD has grown to a powerful network of over 100 groups and 400,000 members. For her work as a social justice organizer, Jiménez was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME Magazine, and was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 2017.
John Sorensen is the founder and director of the Abbott Sisters Project. His books include A Sister’s Memories: The Life & Work of Grace Abbott, The Grace Abbott Reader and Grace Abbott: An Introduction. He produced and directed the Abbott-inspired public television film, The Quilted Conscience.
November 17th, 1878
Grace Abbott is born
1904 - IN HISTORY
A National Child Labor Committee is formed
1908 - 1917
Abbott serves as Director of the Immigrants’ Protective League
1916 - IN HISTORY
The Keating-Owens Act
The first federal child labor laws are enacted.
Abbott becomes the Director of the U.S. Children’s Bureau
1922 - 1934
League of Nations’ advisory committees on trafficking of women and on child welfare.
Abbott has a weekly radio broadcast on NBC
National Conference of Social Work
1933- IN HISTORY
Franklin Delano Roosevelt becomes president of the U.S.
Abbott teaches public welfare at the University of Chicago
1935 - IN HISTORY
The Social Security Act is passed as part of the New Deal.
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938