Gertrude Vaile (January 20, 1878 – October 15, 1954): Social Worker, Public Welfare Administrator, Reformer and Pioneer in Social Work Education
Introduction: Gertrude Vaile was a nationally recognized social welfare leader who was able to demonstrate that it was feasible and productive to apply casework principles and practices to the field of public welfare and to change a traditional county agent’s office into a legitimate social service department. She used the same concepts of casework practice and public welfare policy in her role as a social work educator at the University of Minnesota.
Her Early Years: Vaile was born in Kokomo, Indiana the daughter of Joel Frederick and Charlotte (nee: White) Vaile. Her father was a prominent lawyer in Indiana. When Gertrude was about five her family moved to Denver where her father was appointed the general counsel for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. In Denver, the Vaile family soon became very prominent, socially and politically. For example, Gertrude’s brother William served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1924-1927.
Gertrude Vaile attended public schools in Denver and later graduated from Vassar College. In 1909 she moved to Chicago to attend the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. While in Chicago, she was a resident at Chicago Commons, the settlement house founded by Graham Taylor. Shortly after graduating, she became a caseworker for United Charities in Chicago.
In 1913, she was asked by the Mayor of Denver to take a position on the City Board of Charities and Corrections. She accepted the offer and within a year she became the executive director of the board. It was in that context that she began to apply the casework principles of the charity organization society movement to a publicly administered agency. The Denver Board of Charities and Corrections adopted the use of casework, case conferences, and friendly visitors. Vaile also introduced the use of interagency case conferences at which representatives of all public and private social agencies met to marshal community resources for clients. These practices were considered quite revolutionary at the time and many casework experts were skeptical that they would work; however, through Vaile’s efforts the Denver Board of Charities and Corrections evolved into the nation’s first legitimate public social service agency.
Note: At the 43rd annual meeting of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections held in Indianapolis, Indiana, May 10-17, 1916 Gertrude Vaile presented a paper titled: PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION OF CHARITY IN DENVER in which she reported:
“…In the outdoor relief department Denver has been making a great effort to change the old archaic county agent office for doles of coal and groceries into a real department of social service along the lines of the charity organization society. We keep full individual case histories on which we may base consistent and developing plans of help. We have our weekly case conferences, made up of volunteers especially from churches and other organizations. We have our various committees and our friendly visitors….”
In this same presentation at the NCCC meeting in 1916, Vaile touched briefly on a what was to become a singular issue/problem with “public” administered social agencies: the influence of elected officials. In her concluding remarks, Vaile described the emerging issue and her recommendation for how to cope with it.
“…What the future methods (of the Denver agency) may be is all unknown. Even while this conference is meeting we have had a city election in Denver in which we have repealed commission government and established a new form of city administration. We have now an all-powerful Mayor, a Cabinet of four department managers appointed by him, and an elective Council of nine members having legislative but no administrative functions. Civil service has been swept away and all things rest in the will of the mayor. The newspapers from home are naming my probable successor. My chair may be occupied on my return and all we have worked for may go into the scrap basket. Yet I think it will not be so.
“A year ago we had a city election. At that time the Department, I am sure, was saved by the backing of good people of the community who thought the thing we were trying to do was worthwhile.
“That is the one thing I want to say, that the success or failure of the public administration of charity is bound to rest upon the backing of the good people of the community, and primarily upon the private charities themselves. It is the workers in the private charities who know how the work should be done. It is they presumably who care how it is done. It is they who have the power to get it done right. Where the public administration is poor I hold that it is in considerable part the fault of the private charities who have not considered it worth while nor their duty to try to make it good. I am not referring to Denver (the public and private charities work well together there) nor to any other particular city but to the relation of public and private charities in general as it seems to me to exist over the country.
“I realize that the private charities have been justified in their distrust of public relief. In the past it has not in general been well done. And considering the handicaps and the instability to which public administration of charity is yet subjected I would be slow to advocate rash extensions of public administration where it does not exist or the turning over of private work to public administration where the community sense of responsibility for public work is not well developed. Yet I do say that public administration of charitable work, including outdoor relief, does exist in most places and is going to increase. It is in accordance with social justice and the spirit of the times that it should increase. It seems to me that it is the duty of every good citizen, and especially of everyone connected with the private administration of charity, to demand that the public work shall be good wherever it exists and to help to make it good. I am urging you of the private charities not to stand aloof from the public charities in distrust or indifference but to stay with them. and wherever you see a glimmer of right desire on the part of a public official hold the thought and help it to come true.
“The big and interesting problems of public administration that lie before us are not of law, nor theory, nor organization, but of the spirit of the work, the winning of public recognition of its dignity and importance and the fine co-operation of public and private forces.”
Later Social Work Career: During World War II, Vaile served as director of Civilian Relief for the Mountain Division of the American Red Cross and again found ways of applying casework principles. After the war, Vaile joined the field staff of the Family Service Association of America where she was associate field director until 1923. She left this position to be executive director of the Colorado State Department of Charities and Corrections. In 1930, Vaile became associate director of the School of Social Work at the University of Minnesota, a position she would hold until her retirement in 1946.
In 1926, Vaile was elected president of the National Conference of Social Work. In her presidential address before the conference she spoke of the decline of the kind of crusading social work leadership that had been so evident in the days of the progressive movement. She went on to identify the emergence of a new type of leadership in a field more concerned with day to day administration than with broad ideals in social vision. While lamenting the passing of the reform movement, Vaile stated that the present needs seemed to be for decentralized, diffused learning.
At Minnesota, she worked to strengthen the Association of Schools of Social Work that became the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE), believing that the potential of social work education could be realized only if the various schools united and worked together. One of the principles she advocated in her administration of welfare programs and her teaching, was that government should assume the responsibility for the welfare of its people. One of her main accomplishments was to show that government could efficiently and effectively develop and maintain a rational system designed to meet human needs.
Sources: NASW Foundation: Social Work Pioneers www.naswfoundation.org/pioneer.asp
Biographical Dictionary of Social Welfare in America (1986). Walter I. Trattner, Editor. Greenwood Press, New York, Westport, CT
Proceedings of the 43rd annual meeting of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections held in Indianapolis, Indiana, May 10-17, 1916