Grace Abbott Biography

Children's Activist, Activist, Educator, Academic (1878–1939)
Grace Abbott is best known for her social activism on behalf of immigrants and children. She headed the Children's Bureau from 1921 to 1934.


Born in Nebraska in 1878, Grace Abbott started out as a high school teacher before becoming a leading social reformer. She formed the Immigrants Protective League in 1909. For several years, Abbott fought hard to improve and protect the lives of immigrants in the United States. Abbott moved to Washington, D.C., to head up the Child Labor Division of the Children's Bureau in 1917. In 1921, Abbott became the director of the Children's Bureau. She spent her final years as a professor at the University of Chicago. Abbott died in 1939.

Early Life

Born on November 17, 1878, social activist Grace Abbott grew up in Grand Island, Nebraska. She and her older sister, Edith, both inherited their mother's interest in making the world a better place. Their mother, Lizzie, a Quaker, was involved in both the abolitionist and suffragist movements. Their father, Othman, a Civil War veteran, was a lawyer and a politician. He was elected to be the first lieutenant governor of Nebraska in 1876.

In 1898, Abbott graduated from Grand Island College. She spent several years working as a high school teacher before finding her true calling. Around 1907, Abbott moved to Chicago, Illinois, to advance her education and lived with her sister Edith. She soon moved into Hull House, a settlement created by social activists Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. In 1909, Abbott earned a doctorate in political science from University of Chicago (some sources say she earned a master's degree).

Champion for Immigrants

Around the time she completed her degree, Abbott formed the Immigrants Protective League. She created the organization to help the many new arrivals to the Chicago area. Abbott felt that immigrants needed protection from unsavory employers and others looking to exploit their lack of language skills and naiveté about American business, laws and culture.

Abbott sought to find ways to help immigrants adjust to their new homeland as well as to advocate for laws to shield them from harm. Her position was in opposition to the anti-immigrant sentiments held by many at the time. In 1911, Abbott traveled to Eastern Europe to learn more about the places and cultures of the immigrant populations she worked so hard to help. She wrote about her experiences with IPL in her first book, The Immigrant and the Community (1917).

Fighting for Children's Rights

In 1917, Abbott moved to Washington, D.C., to take on a new challenge. She headed up the Child Labor Division with the Children's Bureau. As part of her job, Abbott worked to enforce a 1916 federal law that prohibited interstate commerce of goods created by child labor. The Supreme Court, however, soon overturned this law on the grounds it interfered with states' rights. This defeat inspired Abbott to lobby for a constitutional amendment to ban child labor.

Abbott became the head of the Children's Bureau in 1921. In her new position, she championed another cause—providing health care to pregnant women and mothers. The funding for this effort from the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921. Abbott oversaw more than 3,000 centers nationwide that were a part of this program. In addition to this effort, she also wrote extensively about child welfare and other social issues.

Final Years

In 1934, Abbott left the Children's Bureau due to her declining health and returned to Chicago. She worked at the University of Chicago's School Service Administration as a professor of public welfare. In addition to her teaching, Abbott still managed to keep her hand in public policy. She helped draft the Social Security Act of 1935 and published her last book, The Child and the State, in 1938.

On June 19, 1939, Grace Abbott died at the home she shared with sister Edith in Chicago. Abbott never married nor had children. Instead she acted as "the foster mother to the nation's 43 million children" during much of her lifetime, according to the Nebraska State Historical Society.

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