“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’s Story

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

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

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

Her Life & Times

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Books & Secondary Sources

Two Sisters For Social Justice: A Biography of Grace and Edith Abbott By Lela B. Costin

The Grace Abbott Reader By Grace Abbott, Edited by Judith Sealander, and John Sorensen

A Sister’s Memories: The Life and Work of Grace Abbott from the Writings of Her Sister, Edith Abbott, Edited by John Sorensen

The Many Faces of the Hull House By Wallace Kirkland. (1989). Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 

The Women Founders: Sociology and Social Theory 1830-1930 by Patricia Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley, Jill. (1998). McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.


Online Sources

Biography of Grace Abbott on American National Biography: https://www.anb.org/view/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.001.0001/anb-9780198606697-e-1500002

Grace Abbott (1878 – 1939) –  Social Work Pioneer, Reformer, Hull House Resident by John Sorensen, Founding Director of the Abbott Sisters Project: https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/organizations/childrens-bureau/abbott-grace/ 

Grace Abbott: One of America’s 12 Greatest Women – University of Chicago: http://www.ssa.uchicago.edu/grace-abbott-one-americas-12-greatest-women 

Edith Abbott (1876- 1957) and Grace Abbott (1878-1939)- University of Chicago: http://magazine.uchicago.edu/0810/features/legacy.shtml

Timeline from Library of Congress’ “America’s Story from America’s Library” on Abbott: http://www.americaslibrary.gov/jb/gilded/jb_gilded_abbott_1.html

“Best-Fed Babies” film – a short Children’s Bureau film: http://www.nyu.edu/orphanfilm/orphans8/mov8/Best-Fed_Baby.mp4

Child Welfare’s Website: https://www.childwelfare.gov/

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