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Taft, Jessie

in: People

Jessie Taft (1882 – 1960): Social Worker, Advocate for Women, Academic and Founder of the Functional School of Social Work

By John E. Hansan, Ph.D.

Jessie Taft, 1908
Jessie Taft, 1908
Photo: Public Domain

Introduction: Julia Jessie Taft was born on June 24, 1882 in Dubuque, Iowa, the oldest of three sisters. Her parents were Charles Chester Taft and Amanda May Farwell who during her childhood moved to Iowa. Her father established a prosperous wholesale fruit business in Des Moines and the family was financially comfortable. Her mother was a homemaker who gradually became deaf and distant from her daughters. As a young girl she was overweight and was made fun of by her classmates as well as her family. In later years in her professional career she referred to her life then in a “case study” in her writings.  Taft earned a bachelor’s degree at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. After college, Taft attended the University of Chicago where she earned a Ph.B. in 1905. She then went back to her former high school and taught there for four years. In 1908 she returned to the University of Chicago for graduate work. During that time she met Virginia P. Robinson. The two women became lifelong companions and colleagues. While in Chicago Taft also worked at Hull House, the settlement house founded by Jane Addams.

Professional Career: In 1909 Taft received a fellowship and began working with George Mead (who became her thesis adviser), James H. Tufts and William I. Thomas. Taft’s thesis topic was “The Woman Movement from the Point of View of Social Consciousness” and it was accepted in 1913 by the Philosophy department at the University of Chicago. It was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1916 with a note acknowledging her “…indebtedness to Professor James H. Tufts and Professor George H. Mead for their advice and counsel.”

The thesis is 25,000 words long probing the moving boundaries of private and public, subjects that galvanized new thinking about governing modern social problems therapeutically. She invoked philosophers from Plato to Kant, surveying how religious, political and economic revolutions shaped consciousness of self and detailed the conflicts women face at home and at work. The Introduction sets out the problem:

“Every nook and corner of feminine nature has been brought to light and examined as if woman were a newly discovered species. Yet out of this endless controversy only a very general agreement has been reached. It is fair to say that the majority of intelligent people today are agreed on at least two points: the necessity of improving motherhood and the need of some form of useful work for every woman. But here the agreement ends. It is the purpose of this thesis to determine just what are the problems represented by the woman movement, to trace their connection with the larger, more inclusive social problems, and to indicate in a general way the direction from which a solution may be expected.”

The Conclusion is a summary and prophecy:

“The course of the preceding argument has been very briefly as follows: first, the woman movement is the expression of very genuine problems both for the individual woman and for society as a whole; second, those problems are the result of an unavoidable conflict of impulses and habits, values and standards…; third, such conflicts are, as a matter of fact, equally real for men and for women as the labor movement testifies, and give evidence of a real dualism of self and social environment…; and finally, the restoration of equality between self and environment depends on the possibility of developing a higher type of self-consciousness whose perfect comprehension of its relations to other selves would make possible a controlled adjustment of those relations from the point of view of all concerned.
With women…social impulses are the only ones which are overtly recognized. Women are constantly forced into the economic world, but the system ignores that fact and provides in no way for combining the peculiar social function of women with any economic function which they may find desirable or necessary. Such economic expression as has been conceded to them is confined to the home. Likewise, the other impulses, even the maternal, have no recognized place outside the limits of the individual home. For the woman, the system has no avenues of fulfilment foreseen and provided beforehand for any impulse whatsoever outside the home itself.
All of this hopeless conflict among impulses which the woman feels she has legitimate right, even a moral obligation, to express, all of the rebellion against stupid, meaningless sacrifice of powers that ought to be used by society, constitutes the force, conscious or unconscious, which motivates the woman movement and will continue to vitalize it until some adjustment is made.

Taft’s thesis became one of the philosophical foundations of the feminist movement.

Jessie Taft with lifelong companion Virginia Robinson in May, 1954 by their home, "The Pocket", in Flourtown PA.
Jessie Taft with lifelong companion Virginia Robinson in May, 1954 by their home, “The Pocket”, in Flourtown PA.
Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0

After completing her thesis in 1913 Taft desired an academic position but women of this era were mostly excluded from that life. So for over two decades she worked in the world of child and family services. Her first job was with Katherine Bement Davis as the assistant superintendent at the New York State Reformatory for Women. When Davis left the Reformatory so did Taft moving from the field of delinquency to the new field of mental hygiene as the Director of the Mental Hygiene Committee of the State Charities Aid Association of New York. In 1918 she left the Committee because of WW I.  Taft moved from New York to Philadelphia (where Virginia Robinson was on staff at the Pennsylvania School of Social Work) to join the Seybert Institution as director of a new Department or Child Study, organizing a school for problem children and doing much case work. She wrote many papers and spoke often about what she had learned and the diagnostic techniques she pioneered for dealing with institutionalized children.

In about 1920 Taft and Robinson bought a house on East Mill Road in Flourtown that became known as “The Pocket”, so called because the women had to dig deeply into their pockets to purchase

the property. In 1921 Taft and Robinson made the decision to adopt two children. Everett was adopted on his birthday July 9, 1921 at age nine. Martha Scott was adopted in 1923 at age 6. Everett went on to marry and raise a family. Martha, who never married, became Chief Dietitian for the Veterans Administration Hospital in Philadelphia, PA.

In 1924 Taft met the psychiatrist Otto Rank, a former associate of Sigmund Freud. She had undergone psychoanalysis with him in 1926-27, arranged for his immigration to the United States, as well as his employment at the University of Pennsylvania. It is said that “…her theory, practice, and network” shifted because of Otto Rank’s teachings and she became his American champion and translator.

Taft authored “The Function of a Mental Hygienist in a Children’s Agency,” which she presented at the National Conference of Social Work in 1927. She had published “A Changing Psychology in Child Welfare” in the September 1930 issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Then, in 1934, after fifteen years at the Children’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania, she became a full-time member of the faculty at the Pennsylvania Society of Social Work. In 1936 she translated and published Rank’s Will Therapy: An Analysis of the Therapeutic Process in Terms of Relationship. For all of this, Jessie Taft is credited as the person most responsible for developing the “functional school” in social work theory and practice.

Virginia Robinson in her professional biography of Taft writes that “The discovery of the use of function in helping processes, the most significant and influential concept in the development of theory and practice in the Pennsylvania School of Social Work, remains Dr. Taft’s most significant and enduring contribution to theory and practice in social casework.” Taft played a major role in the controversy that developed in social work education between the Rankian “functional” approach and the Freudian “diagnostic” approach.

Taft died on June 7, 1960 after suffering a stroke. Virginia Robinson lived on until 1977, writing a biography of Taft that was published in 1962.

Recommended Reading

Jessie Taft: Therapist and Social Work Educator edited by Virginia P. Robinson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962).

“Taft, Jessie” by Mary Jo Deegan in American National Biography, John A. Garraty, Mark C. Carnes, editors (New York: Oxford University Press, 199).

“Taft, Jessie” by June Axinn in Notable American Women: The Modern Period (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980).

Sources:  Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

NASW Social Work Pioneers:

“Columbia University Library”. Columbia University Library. Has professional papers of Jessie Taft and Virginia Robinson. The collection consists of 300 items in 3 boxes.

“Radcliffe University”. Radcliffe University. The Ethel S. Drummer Papers at the Schlesinger Library contains a correspondence between Taft and Drummer.

“University of Pennsylvania”. University of Pennsylvania. Have a vertical file on Taft and pictures.

One Reply to “Taft, Jessie”

  1. I have been doing some research on Jessie Taft and found no evidence that she was a visitor at Hull House. I found no evidence in her published writings that she wanted an academic position after receiving her Ph.D. Some of the facts in articles need to be checked.

    Please don’t publish my name or email address.

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