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Phillips, Elsie C.

in: People

Elsie Cole Phillips (1879-1961) — Trade Unionist, Social Worker, Community Organizer and Socialist


Introduction: After almost a decade of work with young women in New York City’s trade union movement and with woman’s suffrage activities, she married Wilbur C. Phillips and for the rest of her career collaborated with him in Socialist Party activities and in raising funds and working toward development of their “social unit plan” to enhance democratic participation on the neighborhood level. They directed a social unit experiment in Cincinnati 1917-1920 and continued afterward to develop the concept theoretically.

Elsie La Grange Cole was born in Albany, New York, on September 24, 1879, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Charles W. Cole. She attended Albany public schools and graduated from Vassar College in 1901. After teaching English for two years in Albany High School she moved to New York City, where she became involved in the women’s trade union movement, first as an organizer of girls’ clubs for the National Association of Women Workers and then (1908-1911) as placement secretary at the Manhattan Trade School for Girls. She was active in the Triangle shirtwaist strike in 1909.

She married Wilbur Phillips on May 19, 1911, and served as his assistant at the Milwaukee Child Welfare Commission. The Phillips were both active in Socialist Party political affairs; Elsie joined Mrs. Victor Berger in speaking at suffrage rallies on several occasions.

1914-1916 — Mrs. Phillips spent time in research and planning for a new type of community organization which Mr.  Phillips had developed out of his work with infants milk depots in New York, before our marriage and the Milwaukee baby station, organized by him for the Commission, on new and original lines.  When the plan had been concreted, they organized a national group to finance and conduct it in some American city.  Having secured $135,000 for a three years’ demonstration, we set up a competition among cities and Cincinnati, Ohio, was finally chosen.

1917-1922 — Joint Executive with Mr. Phillips, of the National Social Unit Organization (the name taken by the organization we had created).  For three years and a half they jointly directed this demonstration, until its close in 1921.  They then spent some months in analyzing the experience and preparing a report to the national organization.

The rest of her life was spent collaborating with her husband, developing and promoting the social unit plan. Her health began to fail in the mid-1940s. She suffered a stroke in 1948 that left her mostly bedridden until her death on April 10, 1961. The Phillips had one daughter, Joan.


SourceWilbur C. and Elsie C. Phillips Papers. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN. More information is available at:

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J. (2012). Elise Cole Phillips (1979-1961) — Trade unionist, social worker, community organizer and socialist. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from