Social work is a rich and important professional field, touching all major political parties, all social classes, and serving an instrumental role in the advance of human rights.
Social workers have been at the forefront of almost every major social advance in modern history including healthcare reforms, women's voting rights, racial equality, worker's rights, child protection laws, and health and safety regulations.
Social workers aren't all case workers either. They can also be counselors, nurses, teachers, lobbyists, care-givers, politicians, researchers, and front-line activists—all devoted to advancing human rights. Sometimes social workers are easy to spot—serving in mental health hospitals, substance abuse clinics, or child-protective services. But other times, they are teaching classes to poor working-class immigrants like Jane Addams at the Hull House.
Social Workers have had their place in presidential cabinets, penning new legislation. Other times, social workers are scouring city slums to give aid, document conditions, and perhaps even rescue children from abusive homes.
The 23 facts below illustrate the beautifully diverse, stirring, and sometimes surprising influences that helped make up the field of Social Work as we know it today.
Defining Moments in the Social Work Field
Modern Professional Social Work traces back over 100 years to Columbia University in New York
The historic Columbia University in New York City helped pioneer the social work movement by offering the first class for professional social workers in the summer of 1898. This class inaugurated the school's social workers program, and was cosponsored by the New York branch of the Charity Organization Society (COS). The COS, founded in 1877, was a “case-work” group and forerunner to the modern non-religious social work movement. The New York branch served about 25 years (1882-1907) in tandem with Columbia University.
After 1898, other schools followed in Columbia's footsteps with their own social work programs, including the University of Missouri (1906) and the University of Chicago (1908). But Columbia did it first, so 1898 is generally considered the official beginning of the field of social work. A Social Work Centennial Celebration was held in New York in 1998, with artifacts donated to the Smithsonian to commemorate the young but rich history of social work. The field of social work grew so strong and influential during its first century that, in 1984, Ronald Reagan declared March to be National Social Workers Month. Today, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) organizes themes and festivities each year for National Social Workers Month.
Social Work is Older Than You Might Think
If 1898 is the start of modern profession that we call social work, what about older and non-professional forms? Social work, in the broad sense, is as old as humanity. Narrow definitions of social work emphasize that “social work is a profession” and “social work is an academic discipline.” But Social work in the broad sense is any “organized work directed toward the betterment of social conditions in the community, as by seeking to improve the condition of the poor, to promote the welfare of children, etc.”
By this definition, ancient Hebrew welfare practices like “gleaning”—the practice of leaving the corners of one's fields unharvested so that the poor could collect the leftovers from one's bounty—would qualify. So too would the early abolition of slavery in Ancient Persia. Likewise included would be early church efforts to abolish infanticide and gladiator fights in Ancient Rome. We could also include Islamic practices of alms-giving, or the outreach of church hospitals during the black plague, or the charitable actions of religious orphanages, and adoption agencies. There are also non-religious professional mental health workers, prison reformers, hospital and healthcare workers, and various other vocations where people served in “social work” long before there existed an official title of “social worker.”
Modern Social Work was pressed into action largely by Urbanization and Industrialization
There are many causes behind the modern social work movement, but two of the leading factors were swelling cities and the Industrial Revolution. Modern professional social work helped fill in the socio-cultural crater made by booming industries and exploding urban centers.
Social work, in some form, has existed throughout human history but it was often done through communal and volunteer organizations like churches and individual families. Those sorts of social work don't qualify in the modern professional sense of “social work” today. These loosely organized volunteer efforts often fell short, unable to keep up with the rapidly growing needs of industrial cities. At the turn of the 20th century, the United States was becoming a world power through unprecedented growth in manufacturing, shipping, and trade. With the industrial revolution, a new form of “slave labor” threatened American workers in the form of brutal factory work, exhausting railroad work, and perilous coal mines. All of this was before the days of Labor unions, child-labor laws, and “workers rights.”
There was also mass immigration, as high as 200% growth at the turn of the 20th century, as people flocked from Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia to get a piece of that pie and carve out their own American dream. As the U.S. soared ahead of the global market in production, cities grew wealthy and people flocked to urban centers, creating infrastructural problems in local economies, challenging police forces, stretching thin existing social support structures, and fomenting cross-cultural conflicts. Ghettos and gangs formed. Vagrancy soared. Organized crime, violent crime, and petty crime grew. The stage was set for social workers to rally.
America, like a child maturing from adolescence to adulthood, underwent profound growing pains for which social work was indispensable therapy. Modern social work emerged in the form of immigrant settlement houses, child labor laws, the pro-family message of the Temperance movement, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, labor unions, first wave feminism and scores of organized human rights campaigns by groups that all blossomed at the turn of the 20th century.
Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr found the Hull House
The Hull House, named for its first owner Charles H. Hull, began in 1889 as a settlement house in a poor immigrant neighborhood on the West side of Chicago. Modeled after Toynbee Hall in London, the Hull house was cofounded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. The two secured funds to purchase this inner-city mansion and subsequently lived there, serving as the house wardens and administrators.
The goal for Addams and Starr was to vitalize the neighborhood by studying and responding to the social and cultural needs of their neighbors. Key ideals inspiring their work included pacifism, feminism, and socialism. This project was part academic and part practical. Workers at the Hull House established an experiential research base and think tank on the subject of poverty. But they also tested various theories to see which services actually work.
In many ways, the Hull House served both as a social-laboratory and as a community center complete with classrooms, a kitchen, gymnasium, and art gallery. Primary services at the Hull House and similar settlement houses included day care, elementary school, adult education classes, and basic healthcare. Hull House and Toynbee Hall were just two of many hundreds of settlement houses in England and North America. While the Hull House is world famous, and helped popularize the settlement house movement, it was not the first of its kind. Toynbee Hall in England predated it by five years (founded in 1884). Hull house was not even the first settlement house in the United States. Stanton Coit founded the Neighborhood Guild in 1886, three years before Hull House.
Jane Addams was the second woman ever to receive a Nobel Peace Prize (1931)
Jane Addams (1860-1935) is the poster child for social work, embodying the ideals of charity, compassion, and fortitude in a time when no one knew what “social work” meant. Her constant labor in settlement houses, community activism, and community boards and organizations earned her the title the “Mother of Social Work.” She's most famous for her role in establishing the Hull House on the West side of Chicago. Her pacifism is less well-known.
Addams received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her work in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Addams was an ardent pacifist and socialist who endured much scorn from her political opponents because of her staunch opposition to U.S. involvement in the Great War (WWI). Her Nobel Peace prize made her the 34th recipient of all time, and only the second female winner. The first female winner was pacifist author Bertha Von Suttner of Austria-Hungary in 1905.
Jane Addams was a cofounder of the NAACP
While we're on the topic of Jane Addams, we shouldn't forget her role in racial equality. Addams was a tireless social activist, and so she was involved in all sorts of progressive groups, protests, and causes, including early efforts at advancing racial equality. She played an instrumental role in helping to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
The NAACP was first established at a time when black people struggled mightily under overt cultural and legal oppression. Segregation was the norm. An implied class system blanketed the masses. Former slaves struggled to economically adjust to their newfound freedoms even as the nation struggled to cope with the socioeconomic fallout from the Civil War. The goal of the NAACP upon its founding was to provide support for black Americans working for survival against this backdrop.
Jane Addams—a progressive Republican—was one of the NAACP's 60 charter members.
The NAACP was founded by Republicans in 1909
Few social justice organizations today have lasted as long as the NAACP, which is considered the “oldest, largest, and most widely recognized grass-roots based civil rights organization.” This organization hales from the pre-Jim Crow era, at the turn of the century, before women could vote (1920), and long before the Civil Rights Act (1964). In fact, the NAACP dates so far back, that at least one of its founders was a former slave from the Civil War era, Ida B. Wells.
This long history also means that the Republican party was still known, at the time, as the Party of Lincoln and as such, was staunchly abolitionist. So, it's no surprise that the founders of the NAACP were a combination of Republicans (like Ida B. Wells) and some progressive socialists (like Jane Addams). One member, Archibald Grimke, may have been a Democrat ideologically, but he kept the title of “independent.”
A key reason for chartering the NAACP was to counteract illegal segregation and the “southern horrors” of lynching, often at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Given the inextricable link between the Democrat party and the KKK at the time, the 60 founding members overwhelmingly favored the Republican party. There were political progressives among the charter members, but at that time, the Republican party was the Progressive party.
The progressive movement did not generate an official third party until 1912, three years after the founding of the NAACP. And even then, the Progressive party was formed by former Republican president Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) who had just lost the Republican Party nomination to William Howard Taft. The NAACP therefore was founded overwhelmingly by Republicans. (It is notable that the Republican and Democratic parties underwent a major philosophical and regional role reversals during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, with Democrats advocating for equal rights and Republicans standing in opposition.)
Almost 70 years before Rosa Park's famously held her seat on an Alabama bus, Ida B. Wells did the same thing on a train on May 4, 1884.
Any public stand against tyranny takes courage. But sometimes taking a seat is just as heroic. Rosa Parks earned notoriety on December 1, 1955 while riding a Montgomery, Alabama bus when she refused to surrender her seat to a white man, despite the orders of the bus driver. Parks is rightly celebrated as a courageous Civil Rights leader. She was not, however, the first to do this. Other people preceded her in seated protest, including Bayard Rustin (1942), Irene Morgan (1946), Lillie Mae Bradford (1951), and Sarah Louise Keys (1952).
Before the era of buses, there were trains. On one fateful day in the reconstruction era, May 4, 1884, Ida B. Wells refused to give up her seat on a train ride from Memphis to Nashville. She was forcibly removed from her seat, but managed to bite one of her aggressors in the process. She sued the owners of the rail and won a $500 settlement, but it was later overturned. Wells, however, wasn't done with her protests. That experience only fueled her fire for social activism. She went on to become one of the leading journalists in her day, reporting first-hand on lynchings and segregation in the South. Her work has proven invaluable in understanding the precise nature and social climate of racism in the reconstruction era south.
The first laws against child abuse were established by way of animal abuse laws
Before there was a Federal Children's Bureau, or Child Protective Services, child abuse in the United States was addressed only through scattered and flimsy laws about general duties of parents, or they addressed only extreme cases like rape or murder. All that changed in 1874 with Mary Ellen McCormack, a 10-year old child and victim of almost daily abuse at the hands of her only surviving adoptive parent, her widowed mother. Mary Ellen's case was not at all unique as child-abuse was rampant in those days. But her case was unique in how it was prosecuted.
A social worker and missionary to the poor named Etta Wheeler took up the child's case, determined to legally rescue her from that abusive home. Wheeler did not see any laws directly addressing this sort of child abuse, so she approached the A.S.P.C.A. (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). The founder, Henry Bergh took kindly to Mary Ellen's case and hired a crackshot lawyer, Elbridge Gerry. Gerry argued the case all the way to the New York Supreme Court on the grounds of animal cruelty laws and habeas corpus (unlawful detention). Mary Ellen's own testimony of abuse and imprisonment at the hands of her caretaker proved to be the turning point in the case.
The prosecution won the case. Mary Ellen was liberated from her abuser and eventually adopted by Etta Wheeler herself. Little Mary Ellen's tragic case turned into a happy ending, even inspiring Berg, Gerry and others to establish the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (December 1874), the first child protective agency in the world.
The Tiananmen Square protest of 1989
Sometimes social work is safe and quiet. Other times, it's a war out there. In 1989, social advocates took to the streets throughout China in peaceful gatherings that included students, workers, and other citizens. The largest assembly was in the capital city of Beijing. Activists gathered to advocate for freedom of speech, free press, freedom of assembly, and for greater accountability against the authoritarian Chinese government. The Maoist government responded with martial law, arresting, attacking, and killing protestors over about a two-month period (April 15-June 4).
Known popularly as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Chinese officials refer to it in gentler language as the “June 4th Incident.” According to reports, some of the protesters retaliated against government violence by attacking an army convoy on June 4th.
To this day, the Chinese government detains several thousand of the protesters in prison, and refuses to conduct any formal investigation into these charges despite pressure from groups like Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and a number of other humanitarian or social welfare groups. Families who lost loved ones to death or prison carry a heavy grievance against the Chinese government for their human rights violations.
The Salvation Army begins as a Church
You may have seen them standing by red kettles and ringing bells at store fronts around Christmas time. The Salvation Army, well known for poverty relief and adult rehabilitation, originally sprang from the persuasive preaching of 19th century evangelist William Booth. About 13 years into his traveling ministry, Booth was invited in 1865 to preach tent revival sermons in the East end of London. This traveling preacher stopped traveling and set up roots in England's capital city.
The response was so positive that he was winning hundreds of converts monthly, but many of them were prostitutes, thieves, gamblers, and drunkards. Local churches weren't prepared (or willing) to accommodate such characters. So Booth had to make do, at first, with about ten volunteers to help teach, serve, and mobilize this growing "army" of missionaries. Known at the time as the "Christian Mission,” the title shifted because of a printing error with a 1878 newspaper line reading, "The Christian Mission is a volunteer army." Booth proofread this and crossed out the last words, changing it to "Salvation army."
By 1879, the movement was so strong it was branching into the United States, with the first meeting led by Eliza Shirley in Philadelphia. Military lingo aside, the group was never a literal "army" but, instead, has remained an evangelical protestant Christian Church deeply devoted to ministering to the poor, serving families, and rehabilitating criminals and substance abuse victims.
The ACLU lost the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925
Historians of science, of education, or just fans of evolutionary theory can all point to the Scopes Monkey Trial as one of the most poignant events in modern history. Part show-trial, part test-case, part landmark, part circus, the Scopes Monkey Trial brought the issue of “evolution in the classroom” into the courtroom in truly melodramatic fashion.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), founded just five years earlier (1920), was a social work group devoted to legal defense of human rights. They took up the cause of high school substitute biology teacher John Scopes. They hired Clarence Darrow, famed skeptic and litigator behind the Leopold and Loeb Case (1924). Set in the quiet town of Dayton, Tennessee, the trial commenced in 1925 as The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes. This case proved to be a test case designed to challenge Tennessee's questionable “Butler Act,” which prohibited teaching any non-creationist account of human origins in the classroom. John Scopes, allegedly could not remember whether he'd even taught evolution in his classroom, but the textbook he used—George Hunter's Civic Biology—openly taught evolution. Scopes was to be fined $100 for violating the Butler Act, but this trial was his defense against what he and the ACLU thought was an unjust law.
The trial itself was woven from the heavily knotted threads of “science-vs-religion”, “creation vs. evolution,” and “church-state relations.” But the trial also served other, more trivial purposes. It lent publicity and commerce to the sleepy little town of Dayton. For many residents, this was the first time their town was featured in national media. The two attorneys were also larger than life.
Clarence Darrow, we've mentioned already, but the prosecuting attorney, William Jennings Bryan was a devout Christian fundamentalist and three-time presidential candidate. This trial gave both attorneys a huge serving of media attention to help bolster their respective careers. In fateful irony, the court ruled in favor of the prosecution, Bryan, and the State of Tennessee. But the real winner was Darrow and the defense, since the $100 fine was trivial (later overturned during appeals) and the media attention for this issue was worth far more than a legal victory could have served. The whole trial, was more symbolic than substantial. The ACLU therefore established a precedent in fighting against church intrusion in matters of State. The Butler Act was eventually repealed May 13, 1967.
The first YMCA for African-Americans was founded in Washington, DC by a freed slave, ten years before abolition
The Young Men's Christian Association began in 1844 in London, when George William started a community-conscious Bible study group to keep young men, of all classes and backgrounds, off the streets and out of trouble. According to some scholars, Europe and America were undergoing the 3rd Great Awakening (c. 1858-1900), a revival movement characterized by fervent prayer and social reform—including abolitionism. By 1860, the YMCA had grown into an international phenomenon featuring migrant housing, gymnasiums, English-learning classes, and other projects in social activism. The YMCA today is known primarily for their fitness centers and family-friendly events. But at one point in the past, the YMCA was an important voice in the quest for racial justice.
Anthony Bowen was born a slave in Maryland in 1809. At the age of 21, he bought his freedom and moved to Washington, DC. An industrious and fervent activist, he established black schools, career centers, promoted black businesses, and even petitioned President Lincoln himself to enlist black soldiers in the Civil War. One of the many accomplishments credited to Bowen includes his founding of the Young Men's Christian Association for Colored in America in 1853 to focus on the needs of black people in America. This momentous effort predated abolition by ten years (1863). And also historically aligned the YMCA with the social activism of the 3rd Great Awakening, which centered on they key themes of abolition and racial equality.
The Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) was doing social work 40 years before the term was invented
Most everyone has heard of the YMCA, but the lesser-known sister organization, the Young Women's Christian Association was a major force for social activism too. Founded in 1858 in New York City under the name of Ladies Christian Association, the organization was prioritizing women's shelters by 1860.
While the brother organization, the YMCA, focused on helping young men build character, find jobs, and avoid vagrancy and street crimes, the YWCA targeted needs specific to young women. Their needs tended to reflect gender inequalities and domestic hardship. So the YWCA eventually focused the bulk of their attention on advocating for women's rights and providing shelter for women including immigrants, single women, abuse victims, and vagrants.
Just to remind you, the formally recognized start of social work is thought to have been 1898 at Columbia University. So, the YWCA was doing social work 40 years before social work was supposedly invented. Of course, the confusion here is that groups like the YMCA and the YWCA were doing social work in the broad sense but not in the formal and modern sense of the term. Most all of their workers were volunteers. None of these volunteers (before 1900) had professional degrees in social work. And their agendas typically overlapped heavily with religious causes like prayer, Bible study, and evangelism.
The Peace Corps was established by an Executive Order from none other than John F. Kennedy
Most social work organizations are primarily or exclusively private initiatives. Concerned citizens establish an organization to meet a pressing social need. We might call these “bottom-up” or “grass roots” initiatives because they start at the ground-level with private citizens or local communities and build up from there into wider and higher spheres of influence. But occasionally, social work flows from the top-down, when the state or federal government recognizes a pressing need and sections off government resources (funding, personnel, buildings, etc.) to meet that need.
The Peace Corps is a “top-down” institution. Established on March 1st, 1961 by an executive order (#10924) from President John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps Act was approved by Congress later that same year. The Peace Corps is unusual for its origins in the pen of JFK. But it is also unique for its two-fold purpose: (1) international social work—putting American youth in foreign settings for economic and social development; and (2) international diplomacy.
This diplomatic role means the Peace Corps exists to “help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served” and to “help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”
The Woolworths lunch counter sit-in on February 1, 1960
In the 1950's and early 60's, business owners routinely denied people service because of race. Some stores would serve black, white, and Hispanic patrons alike, but reserved segregation policies just for bathrooms, water fountains, and food service. Many social workers pushed against that trend, working hard throughout the Civil Rights era to stage protests, rally support, organize social programs, and encourage racial equality. One of the most famous of these social protests centered on a “whites only” lunch counter at a Woolworths store. Woolworths was a “five-and-dime” (A.K.A., “variety store” or “dollar store”) with a lunch counter so shoppers wouldn't have to interrupt their shopping to get a midday meal. And it was the Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro North Carolina where the most famous sit-in of the Civil Rights movement took place.
The “Greensboro four,” as they came to be called, were four black college students searching for a means of civilized peaceful protest as inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King. They settled on a simple strategy. Shop at Woolworths; buy at least one item; then sit at the ‘whites only' lunch counter and request a cup of coffee. When the ownership denies service and asks them to leave, they refuse to leave.
The Greensboro Four started their peaceful protest at 4:30pm on February 1, 1960 and stayed seated at the lunch counter until store closing at 5pm. The first day of protest drew some media coverage. The second day had 24 fellow black students join in. By day three, there were 60 people involved—easily occupying all the lunch counter seats. Also by day three, members of the Klu Klux Klan had showed up, along with other onlookers, taunting and teasing the protesters. But by day four, there were 300 activists—black and white alike—sitting in shifts to keep the lunch counter occupied. And the Greensboro-based protestors had begun the same protest at a nearby Kress (another five-and-dime store). By day six, there were 1,000 seated protesters. By the end of the week, similar lunch counter protests were occurring all over the state and into Kentucky. Within six months, Woolworths had changed their segregation policy.
Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple,” starts out as a social worker
Social workers can be found in most every social setting—hospitals, family counseling centers, news rooms, research departments, drug rehab clinics, federal agencies, veteran's clinics, nursing homes, adoption agencies, foster care, and on and on. They can even be authors. Alice Walker is one of the most recognized names in African-American and Feminist literature.
Alice Walker soared into the limelight with her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple (1982). Her notoriety only grew when the critically acclaimed film adaptation, released in 1985, featured celebrities like Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, and Oprah Winfrey. A Broadway production was released 20 years later in 2005.
But audiences may not realize that Alice Walker, born in Putnam County, Georgia in 1944, was an experienced social worker, teacher, and civil rights activist before she came to be known as an author. She participated in the March on Washington in 1963. She served in the Civil Rights Movement in Georgia and Mississippi by helping to register black voters. Later she was an editor for Ms. Magazine (a feminist publication) and cofounded Wild Tree Press, a feminist publishing company. She even coined the term “womanism,” referring to black feminism at the intersection of racism and sexism. Today, Walker is a sought-after speaker and advocate for racial and gender equality.
Feminist Social Workers helped enact Prohibition
Prohibition in the United States, which banned commercial alcohol sales and distribution, was enacted in 1919 through the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment. The two main groups who swayed the vote, ironically, weren't able to vote until a year later (19th Amendment, 18 August 1920). And both groups were feminists: conservative protestant women such as the Christian Women's Temperance Union, and progressive social workers like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
The temperance movement was a strange bedfellow to the suffrage movement, as both issues were leading platforms through which early feminists sought a stronger voice in reducing domestic abuse and alcoholism. While Prohibition effectively banned commercial alcohol sale and distribution, many people don't realize why this happened. Revisionists often blame prohibition on stuffy moralists, not realizing that the Temperance movement was a major platform in first wave feminism.
Prohibition was a uniting cause for liberals and conservatives, Christians and non-Christians, fundamentalists and progressives, feminists and non-feminists. Prohibition was repealed 14 years later but as seen through the eyes of feminists, it was a fairly successful policy. Harvard Professor Mark Moore explains in his NYTimes article on prohibition:
Alcohol consumption declined dramatically during Prohibition. Cirrhosis death rates for men were 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 and 10.7 in 1929. Admissions to state mental hospitals for alcoholic psychosis declined from 10.1 per 100,000 in 1919 to 4.7 in 1928. Arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct declined 50 percent between 1916 and 1922. For the population as a whole, the best estimates are that consumption of alcohol declined by 30 percent to 50 percent.
Of course, there is a strong case that prohibition was overall a mistake, and Moore's stats start to fall apart over the back half of the prohibition era (1925-1934). But, the fact remains that prohibition was pioneered largely by early social workers in the feminist movement. And their intentions appear to have centered on reducing alcohol-related addiction, crime, disease, and death.
Social Workers were complicit in the Eugenics Movement
Not all social workers do the right thing. Social workers are people too, and that means they can make mistakes. One of the biggest mistakes in U.S. history was shared among social workers and social planning advocates in the early 20th century.
The term “eugenics” (lit., “good birth”), first coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, was a borrowed concept from animal breeding practices. The idea was to help improve the human “stock” for the next generation by sterilizing individuals who are deemed “defective” (unworthy or unfit to reproduce). The idea of eugenics sprouted in progressive and educated circles, where there was growing popularity for darwinism, social darwinism, and scientific racism at the time.
In 1903, the American Breeders Association was formed. By 1907, the first eugenics law was passed in Indiana. More than 30 states would pass eugenics laws, and by 1927, the movement infamously swayed the Supreme Court Decision in Buck vs. Bell. Part of its popularity is because eugenics became a platform of the progressive movement during the Progressive Era (c. 1890-1930). Progressive goals like the New Deal welfare state stirred up pressure to eliminate the “drains on society.” Mentally “defective” children slowed down and degraded public education. Physically handicapped people drained the public hospitals and strained welfare programs where resources might have been disbursed to able-bodied families.
In the United States, sterilization was the tool of eugenics. And that responsibility often fell on social workers since they were typically the ones working in child care, health care, mental hospitals, and prisons.
In a 2012 press release on eugenics, the National Association of Social Workers president Jeane Anastas tells how:
[In North Carolina] It was state-employed social workers who decided which people — generally poor or in care as ‘impaired,' often African-American and more often women—would undergo these procedures. . . . Such policies and practices were informed in part by eugenic beliefs that the less ‘fit'—meaning poor, infirm or otherwise ‘less desirable' — people, should not reproduce in order to reduce the burden of care and expense that others (the taxpayers) would bear.
Those practices dated to the first half of the 20th century, but as late as 1957, Anastas admits that NASW officials were still coordinating with the Human Betterment Association (the number one eugenics group in America) to support a pro-eugenics education campaign. Fortunately, as Anastas explains, that mode of eugenics could not happen today because “we have many ethical and practice standards in place that should prevent social work involvement in involuntary sterilizations.”
Margaret Sanger establishes Planned Parenthood (in spite of being Anti-Abortion)
After Jane Addams, perhaps the most famous social worker of all time is Margaret Sanger. A tireless advocate for women's rights, she aggressively promoted women's empowerment through contraception rights. Before there was an abortion debate, there was a contraception debate and within this debate, Sanger helped lead the way in normalizing and promoting the rights of women to prevent pregnancy should they desire. Sanger was the primary founder and first president of Planned Parenthood.
Before abortion entered the public conversation, before there was significant public support for the women's choice movement, Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood were committed to assisting women through contraception services. In Sanger's time, the prospect of abortion rights had not yet reached popular acceptance. For her part, Sanger openly decried abortion, saying in a 1925 speech, “while there are cases where even the law recognizes an abortion as justifiable if recommended by a physician, I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization.”
Later, in 1931, Sanger said:
“[Abortion] is an alternative that I cannot too strongly condemn. Although abortion may be resorted to in order to save the life of the mother, the practice of it merely for limitation of offspring is dangerous and vicious. I bring up the subject here only because some ill-informed persons have the notion that when we speak of birth control we include abortion as a method. We certainly do not. Abortion destroys the already fertilized ovum or the embryo; contraception, as I have carefully explained, prevents the fertilizing of the ovum by keeping the male cells away. Thus it prevents the beginning of life.”
Sanger probably wouldn't qualify as “pro-life” by today's standards (she strongly advocates for “bodily autonomy”) but neither would she fit neatly within the “pro-choice” camp. Regardless, she explicitly decried the “evils” of abortion even as she loudly supported contraception rights.
Most Jobs in Social Work are Private Sector (non-Government) Jobs
Only about three percent of social work jobs are staffed by federal agencies and only one-third of social work jobs are paid through federal, state, or city government payrolls. That leaves two-thirds of social work jobs in the private sector.
It's a popular myth that all social work jobs are government jobs. Perhaps this myth arose because the biggest single employers of social workers tend to be government agencies like the Social Security Agency, which is the single largest government employer of social workers at 26,000 degreed social workers. The next largest federal employer of social workers is the Department of Veteran's Affairs, at roughly 9,000 degreed social workers on payroll. But while Government jobs are a big piece of the pie in social work, they are not the only piece, nor even the biggest piece.
As of 2014, there were about 650,000 social workers in the United States. And that's only degreed or otherwise professionally-employed social workers. Countless jobs serve the same general needs as social workers but through volunteer work or other non-degreed avenues. So, there's a large job-market for social workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a foreseeable 12% growth (between 2014-2024). Social workers, of course, need to be strategic in their planning and preparation so they can guarantee a place in the changing workplace. But one thing they don't have to do is assume that their only options are government jobs.
The first female presidential cabinet member, Francis Perkins becomes the real brains behind the New Deal
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was the 32nd president of the United States. A wildly popular candidate for the Democratic party, he won an unprecedented four terms (1933-1945)—spanning the WWII era—the only president in U.S. history to surpass two terms. His “New Deal” progressive plan for America became his signature contribution to the economy, job market, and social welfare of Americans. He was the “brawn” behind the New Deal. But Francis Perkins, his appointed labor secretary and the first female cabinet member to serve under a sitting president, was the brains behind the New Deal.
In 1929, the Great Depression sent the U.S. banking and job markets into a tailspin. The “Roaring 20's” were crashing. Herbert Hoover entered office that same year (elected in 1928, inaugurated in 1929). And despite his efforts, the seismic effects of the Great Depression were too great for him. By 1933, FDR was able to win by a landslide. His chief platform would be known as the “New Deal,” a progressive-democratic realignment of the government's role in banking and social welfare. And Francis Perkins was one of his early appointed cabinet members.
Serving as the labor secretary, she had already had 23 years of experience in social work when FDR called her to serve for him in D.C. She was a tireless advocate for workers' rights and had made substantial gains in industrial regulations, worker safety, and health code regulations for the state of New York. She had the misfortune of witnessing the tragic industrial fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory 1911. She saw 146 people die for lack of fire-safety regulations.
She would later state that the day of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was “the day the New Deal was born.” Thus began her career advocating for workers' rights and against corporate abuse. Her success in New York earned her recognition and notice from FDR. By the time FDR called her up, she had a seasoned inner-city career dealing with countless businesses, organizations, and social activist groups, and was a natural fit for the job. Under FDR, she helped compose most of the New Deal legislation (both New Deal I, and New Deal II), which were then passed without obstacle under the stewardship of President FDR and with wide popular approval from a population of Americans still staggered by the Depression.
The first woman in Congress was elected before women could even vote
Jeannette Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives for the state of Montana in 1916 and, again, in 1940. She ran as a Progressive-Republican. She was the first woman ever elected to United States Congress. This fact is impressive enough in its own right. But fans of feminist history may not realize she was also a social worker, having graduated from the New York School of Philanthropy (now, the Columbia University School of Social Work, see #1 above).
She graduated in 1902, one of their earliest graduates in the social work program founded just four years prior. Her career, before politics, was steeped in social activism with her chief platforms being pacifism and women's suffrage—both divisive topics in her day. She staunchly opposed U.S. involvement in the Great War (WWI) and was the only member of congress to vote against U.S. involvement in both WWI and WWII.
But her election was doubly special because she was first elected in 1916, four years before women were granted the right to vote with the 19th Amendment of 1920. Before the 19th Amendment was passed, giving all U.S. women the right to vote, various states including Montana had already granted women that privilege. Montana extended women's suffrage in 1914, which helps explain how Jeanette Rankin was elected on a suffrage platform. Montana was ahead of the national curve here but was not the first state to grant women voting rights. That honor falls to Wyoming. In 1869, Wyoming was the first state to extend unrestricted voting rights to women.