Skip to main content

American Association of Social Workers

American Association of Social Workers (AASW) — (1918-1955)


Introduction: Established in 1917 as the National Social Workers’ Exchange and reorganized in 1921 as the American Association of Social Workers, the organization addressed issues of concern, set professional standards, and (in the early years) served as a placement bureau for social workers. It was one of seven organizations that merged in 1955 to form the National Association of Social Workers.

Historical Summary: As the senior professional social work organization, the American Association of Social Workers (AASW) traces its origin to the Intercollegiate Bureau of Occupations. The Bureau was founded in 1911 by a group of New York alumnae of various colleges to provide vocational information to young ladies seeking employment in New York City. The many questions received concerning social work positions led, in 1913, to the formation of a special department within the Bureau — the Department of Social Workers.

Functioning as a clearinghouse for information regarding social workers and social work positions, the department also emphasized better standards in its placement and publications. The decision to become an independent organization was made in 1917, and the National Social Workers Exchange (NSWE) was established with its own board of directors. The purpose of the Exchange was “to develop a better adjustment between workers and positions in the social field, to discover new opportunities, to encourage adequate preparation and professional training, to facilitate the choice of competent candidates for positions, and to secure equitable standards of employment.

The National Social Workers Exchange held its first meeting on May 18, 1918. Meeting concurrently with the National Conference of Social Work in Kansas City, a nominating committee composed of Arthur P. Kellogg, Ida M. Cannon, Alfred Fairbank, Gertrude Vaile and Edith Abbott presented a slate of candidates for board of directors. Edith Shatto King was named manager of the NSWE, while the elected officers were Richard H. Edwards, president; C. C. Carstens, vice president; Margaret Byington, secretary; and James S. Cushman, treasurer.  At the third annual meeting in New Orleans, a resolution for incorporation “…under Article III of the Membership Corporations Laws of the State of New York, pursuant to Section 5 of said law” was authorized by the national body.

In 1920, the board of directors set up a central council, which in turn, appointed committees on placement, job analysis, training, industrial service, recruiting information, publicity and education. The official organ of the Exchange, The Compass was first published in December 1920. An executive committee was formed and its membership roll included C. C. Carstens, J. Bradley Buell, Clare M. Tousley, James S. Cushman, Harriet Anderson, Grace H. Childs, David H. Holbrook, Philip P. Jacobs, and Mary Van Kleeck.

Before the annual meeting on June 27, 1921, Graham Romeyn Taylor, son of the settlement leader, Graham Taylor, was appointed national director. The Exchange continued to function as a nonprofit employment agency, but the need for a distinctly professional organization of social workers developed. In short, according to discussion in The Compass for that year, the Exchange had to become more than an employment bureau. Thus, at Kilbourn Hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the NSWE became the American Association of Social Workers (AASW) — an organization formed to stimulate professional growth in social work and offering a vocational placement service. The elected officials of the newly named organization were Owen R. Lovejoy, president; Clare M. Tousley, first vice-president; Gertrude Vaile, second vice-president; Rose J. McHugh, third vice-president; Josiah Bradley Buell, secretary; and W. W. Norton, treasurer.

Providence, Rhode Island was selected as the place of the annual meeting in June 1922, and it was here that the central council became the national council. A report of a special committee, headed by Harry Hopkins, was also read. He spelled out a financial policy for the Association. Duly adopted by the assembled membership, this program, hereafter known as the “Providence Resolution,” provided that dues and contributions from members would support all Association activities, after January 1, 1923. This undertaking was ideally to be realized by January 1, 1925 and in the interim, financial assistance would come from the above-mentioned sources as well from foundation grants. Financial difficulties forced the deadline to be extended to January 1927. The goal was finally met when the decision was made to separate the Vocational Bureau from the Association, as its operating costs were draining funds from the treasury.

Structurally the organization experimented with several types of governing bodies. Through the course of the Association’s existence governmental responsibility shifted from one group to another. The national council succeeded the original body of authority, the central council, in 1922. An executive committee was appointed to run Association affairs between council meetings. The national council became so unwieldy and its membership so widely distributed that it caused the council to lose its directing capability. In 1926 the executive committee assumed administrative duties. The national council henceforth functioned as a delegate body acting in an intermediary, advisory capacity. To compensate for the loss of’ the council, an interim committee of the executive committee was created to act on urgent matters subject to final approval by the higher authority. The first members were Neva Deardorff, Dorothy C. Kahn, William Hodson, Linton B. Swift, John A. Fitch, and Katharine Tucker.

Since the formation of the Association, the following secretaries have directed the Association’s affairs in the national offices: Graham Re Taylor, 1921-1922; Edith Shatto King (acting executive secretary) 1922-1923; Philip Klein, 1923-1927, with assistance from Elizabeth de Schweinitz (Mrs. Karl de Schweinitz). Walter West assumed the position in November, 1927.

With the advent of the “Great Depression” and social work’s greater interest and involvement in government programs dealing with relief on state and federal levels, financial problems and overwork plagued the organization. According to Compass reports, the executive committee found itself burdened by administrative detail, and consequently lacked correlation with national committees. In 1934 action was taken to decentralize the governing committee’s responsibilities by creating divisions which would be guided internally by steering committees. Certain administrative committees were left out of the divisional scheme, i.e., national membership, publications, and chapter organization.

The main concerns of the Association were reflected in the division titles: government and social work, personnel standards, employment practices, and personnel practices. A word of explanation is necessary to describe the complicated evolution of the division on government and social work. At its annual meeting in Minneapolis in June 1931, the assembled membership of AASW authorized the formation of the commission on unemployment, which was to gather information on local situations through AASW chapters, and study and report on proposed programs meant to deal with unemployment, i.e., federal relief fund. A second assignment involved the study of the social and economic effects of unemployment and the possible regularization of employment by unemployment insurance. The first chairman of the commission was Mary Van Kleeck who was supported by a panel of distinguished citizens: Joseph P. Chamberlain, Stanley Be Davies, Helen Hall, David H. Holbrook, Porter R. Lee, Betsey Libbey, Harry Lurie, Linton B. Swift, Frances Taussig, and Walter West.

Coincidentally, executives of national agencies called for the Social Work Conference on Federal Action to discuss plans for action on governmental programs. The steering committee of this conference, with Linton B. Swift as its chairman, became the AASW’s committee on federal relief under the auspices of the Commission on Unemployment. Not content with this label, the committee was renamed the federal action on unemployment committee. Linton Swift chaired the committee; its membership included Benson Y. Landis, Frank Bane, Allen T. Burns, C. C. Carstens, Joanna C. Colcord, Helen Crosby, David H. Holbrook, Paul U. Kellogg, Harry L. Lurie, the Rev. Dr. John O’Grady, Helen Hall, Ralph G. Hurlin, Walter Went, and Stanley B. Davies.

Lack of funds caused the chairman of the commission to ask for the commission’s discharge in April, 1933, but as many functions as possible were assumed by the division on government and social work under its first chairman, Linton B. Swift. Dissatisfaction with this divisional structure was brought to the surface in August 1938, by the resignation of Florence Taylor (Mrs. Graham R. Taylor), who had served as an assistant executive secretary. She pointed out that the executive committee left too much decision making to the executive secretary. The interim committee could not cope with the responsibilities developing because the executive committee met too infrequently, the committees were too loosely organized, there was too heavy an administrative burden for the national office, and a difference of opinion existed regarding the basic policies and program of the Association.

Faced with such explicit criticism, measures were taken the following year to remedy the situation by creating a new governing body, the national board of directors, from whose ranks an executive committee would be selected to exercise the powers of the national board between meetings of the latter group. Due to the reorganizational shuffle, the divisional apparatus gradually faded out, to be replaced by regionalized national committees. By March, 1941, the outstanding committees were executive, national membership, government and social work, personnel practices, chapter, personnel practices for national staff, and nominating. This basic pattern, changed only by addition or deletion of national committees, remained true of the Association’s structure till dissolution in 1955.

The problem of administrative structure was thus amended. However, matters of procedures continued to plague personnel and employment practices’ investigations, i.e., employment practices inquiry, 1940. The division of opinion regarding basic doctrine of the Association remained unresolved. One member commented that the struggle to solve these issues caused a loss of momentum in the Association’s forward progress and resulted in the resignations of president, executive secretary, and members of the executive committee and board of directors. This period, 1941-1943, was one of internal dissension within all sections of the organization. After Walter West’s resignation in the early part of 1942, Elisabeth Mills served as acting executive secretary until the appointment of Joseph P. Anderson as executive secretary on May 15, 1942. Anderson continued in that capacity until the dissolution of AASW in 1955 at which time he became the executive secretary of National Association of Social Workers.

Beset with financial difficulties and a scattered membership involved in defense concerns during the Second World War, national conferences were canceled in 1943 and 1945. However, during the postwar period, the Association grew steadily. Reflecting the growth of professionalism in social work, The Compass became the Social Work Journal in 1948. Simultaneously preliminary discussions were initiated with other professional social work organizations to examine the possibility of merging operations to best further the social work profession as a whole. This inquiry led to the formation of the Temporary Inter-Association Council in which the AASW took a leading role. A  list of AASW presidents follows:

List of AASW Presidents, 1921-1955:

C. C. Carstens 1921-1923

Owen R. Lovejoy 1922-1923

Harry Hopkins 1922-1924

William Hodson 1924-1926

Neva R. Deardorff 1926-1928

Frank J. Bruno 1928-1930

Frances Taussig 1930-1932

Stanley P. Davies 1932-1934

Dorothy C. Kahn 1934-1936

Linton B. Swift 1936-1938

Harry Greenstein 1938-1940

Wayne McMillan 1940-February 7, 1942

Frank J. Bruno February-October, 1942

Grace L. Coyle 1942-1944

Irene Franham Conrad 1944-1946

Paul L. Benjamin 1946-1947

Donald S. Howard 1947-1949

Ernest Witte 1949-1951

Benjamin E. Youngdahl 1951-1953

Arthur H. Kruse 1953-1955

Source: National Association of Social Workers and Predecessor Organizations Records, 1917-1970. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN:

2 Replies to “American Association of Social Workers”

  1. Hello,
    I was wondering if you could answer some questions I have about moving to America.
    I’m an undergraduate student currently studying Criminology and Sociology in the UK.
    I was wondering if I’d be able to be a social worker in the USA if I get a social work qualification? I don’t know if you have to be a US citizen or if I’d be able to get a work visa to move to the US and work as a social worker.
    Would it help if I got a qualification in social work in the US?
    Thank you for any information you can provide,
    Rebecca Concannon.

Comments for this site have been disabled. Please use our contact form for any research questions.