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Women at the Helm

Women at the Helm:  Three Extraordinary Leaders


By Katherine A.  Kendall, Honorary President, International Association of Schools of Social Work: March 1988



Katherine A. Kendall
Katherine A. Kendall


Friends and Colleagues, Male and Female: You are facing a formidable quartet—survivors of the first stock market crash, the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean and Vietnam lunacies, the generic curriculum, the 13-volume curriculum study, the do whatever you like curriculum, and now the special interest group curriculum.  We have lived through countless unsolved problems of graduate-undergraduate relationships.  We helped to birth the CSWE and have seen it wax and wane.  We shepherded six specialized membership groups into our voracious membership association which now wants to devour the Council.  We are the past and you are the future.  So, what can we tell you in twenty minutes so to inform that future that you may rectify our mistakes and perhaps even learn from our achievements?  I wonder.  I have chosen a rather personal topic – an account of three quite extraordinary women who influenced my career in quite different ways.  To some extent they were role models although there was that in their life I would not wish to emulate.  What they said to me about social work, social work education, and, women as leaders, however, has been of immeasurable and lasting value.  May they also say something of value to you.

When I entered the field in the late 30s, women ran the show, at least in the south and middle west where I began.  There were men in the field – even some very good men, but it was a woman’s world.  Many, if not most, of the great deans in that period were women.  Private agencies were run by women, even when they were headed by men, and women emerged as leaders in the public field.  In other words, for reasons with which all of us are familiar, there was no dearth of female leadership.  But the leadership I want to describe was not just great.  As I said, it was extraordinary.

The first of my three woman at the helm was Dr.  Alice Solomon of Germany, a leader whom I never met but whose work paved the way for my international career.  She was a committed feminist, a social work pioneer, one of the founders and for many years the volunteer President-Secretary of the International Association of Schools of Social Work.  Her productive years were filled with international honors and acclaim but, as a refugee from Nazi Germany, she died alone and pretty much abandoned in New York City in 1948.  Talking to you about her is a form of reclamation of Alice Salomon as a forebear of whom we can be very proud.

The second is Dr.  Edith Abbott, who surely needs no introduction to this audience.  If she does, let me say in capsule that Edith Abbott was the founder of social work education as a university professional discipline, perhaps not equal to medicine or law or theology, but having the same need for research-based knowledge and intellectual rigor while retaining its mission for compassionate service.  Do read Costin’s biography entitled Two Sisters for Social Justice.  It is a superlative account of the lives of Edith and Grace Abbott.

The third is Dame Eileen Younghusband of Great Britain, who was my very close friend as well as British colleague of world-wide fame.  Like Edith Abbott, she changed the character of social work education in her country and, as a consultant and author of the third United Nations international survey of social work education, she contributed enormously to the development of schools of social work around the world.  Abbott rescued the profession in the United States from agency-dominated apprenticeship.  Dame Eileen rescued the profession in Britain from academic sterility within the universities and fragmented specialized training outside the universities.

Let us now get to the heart of this enterprise.  What made these women memorable and in what ways are they significant to our future as a profession?  They had much in common, which I shall underline, but there were also understandable differences influenced by the times in which they lived and the special circumstances of their lives.

All three came from privileged homes where intellectual pursuits were valued.  In the more democratic climate of middle west America, Edith Abbott and her sister, Grace, were not excluded form opportunities to seek higher education.  Both, after some detours, earned doctorates at the University of Chicago.  Dame Eileen was the product of governesses and tutoring at home by an illustrious father, who opened her mind to wide areas of knowledge.  Formal education came late at the London School of Economics which she entered as a student and where she remained as a tutor in the Department of Social Sciences.  Alice Salomon, to a considerable extent self-educated was determined to enter the University of Berlin.  She encountered such strong opposition to the admission of women that she almost gave up but finally, at the age of 34, she achieved the degree of Doctor of Philosophy with honors.  All three thirsted for learning and were committed to education as the route to any kind of achievement, personal or professional.

What to do with the benefits of higher education was the problem faced by all women in the period in the period bridged by my three leaders.  A suitable marriage was the expected career for women of their social class.  I don’t know about Alice Salomon, but early portraits of Edith Abbott and Eileen Younghusband show that they were truly beautiful young women who would have done well in the marriage market, if that had been their choice.  Costin, in her description of Edith Abbott’s early years, makes it clear that a worthwhile career was what she wanted, not marriage.  And it was common knowledge at the School of Social Administration of the University of Chicago that you didn’t invite Edith Abbott to your wedding if you were a woman student.  In fact, you went to great lengths to keep that dreadful knowledge from her.  Dame Eileen did go through the mating ritual of “coming out”, complete with ostrich feathers in her hair and presentation at Buckingham Palace, but hated it and complied only at the insistence of her titled mother.  Alice Salomon expected to marry and had suitors.  Her unpublished autobiography suggest that she may have been disappointed in love.  When asked during her period of fame why she had not married, she always replied: “Because I could not get the men I wanted, and did not want the men I could get.” (Character s Destiny:  An Autobiography, Alice Salomon, pp 39-40)

So what to do instead?  The road to liberation turned out to be charitable work and like so many of our pioneers, each on discovered social work as her vocation through the settlement and charity organization movements.  In addition, Abbottt and Salomon in researching inhuman working conditions for women made important connections with the trade union movement.  All three were alike in not accepting the inevitability of poverty and all three believed that appealing social conditions could be changed by the application of research-based knowledge.  They were indebted to friendly visiting as a way of individualizing the poor, but rejected the demeaning philosophy behind it.

Their cry was for social justice, not charity, and they strongly supported the idea of governmental responsibility for those in need.  No one who attended the National Conference on Social Welfare in 1951 where Edith Abbott was given an award will ever forget the picture of this 75 year old woman, frail but indomitable, calling to us in a voice that remained strong and clear:  “Abolish the means test and establish children’s allowances.”

It was this joining of intellect with compassion and hands-on experience with poverty and the poor that led them to search out what was needed to give charity workers an educational preparation that would combine social investigation and reform with individual help to people in need.  Edith Abbott, as a Hull House resident, was involved in the independent School of Civics and Philanthropy associated wit it.  She was a lecturer at the University of Chicago.  Her conviction that preparation for social work required intellectual rigor and research as well as agency training motivated her, against the wishes many f the social work leaders of the time, to move heaven and earth to get the School of Civics and Philanthropy into the University of Chicago.  This she accomplished in 1920.  As the Dean of the graduate School of Social Service Administration with programs leading to an M.A. And a PhD. D., she embarked on her successful mission to develop and define social work as a university professional discipline.

Eileen Younghusband, as a tutor in the social science department of the London School of Economics, also had great respect for intellectual rigor and recognized the value of the British social science courses as an academic base for social work.  She saw clearly, however, that much of the training available in Britain, even as late as the 1940’s, was deficient in the teaching of professional methods, in field work, in social work literature, and in research.  Time does not permit a detailed account of what went into and resulted from a series of reports on the employment and training of social workers for which she was responsible as author or as the chair of prestigious ministerial committees.  It is enough to say that she changed the face and character of social work education in the United Kingdom.  Quiet separate specialties were replaced by a generic curriculum approach that integrated dynamically oriented social work methodology with supervised practice.  The generic approach in still in effect.

Alice Salomon came to social work education through the women’s movement.  She was not primarily an educator as were the other two.  Rather, she was a missionary or a visionary, wanting to lead young women into a useful life.  In the early 1900’s, education for girls in Germany was limited to grade school followed by finishing schools, with a total curriculum of only ten years in duration.  In 1899 Salomon started a one-year full-time course to train charity workers and from that small beginning she developed a course at the junior college level for young women that stressed education for citizenship and provided what she saw as a systematic foundation for professional social work.  The curriculum combined lectures and classes with supervised field work.  The lectures were described as directed toward the field of practice and practical experience was to be tested and used in class discussions, with all subjects arranged in logical sequence.  Thus, the first School of Social Work, later called the Alice Salomon School, was born in German in 1908 and Alice Saloman was on her way to becoming the matriarch of the European and international social work education.

Of the three women, Salomon was the outstanding feminist.  Her life was devoted, nationally and internationally, in about equal parts to social work and to extensive work with councils of women.  She pioneered the women’s movement in Germany, served as an officer and leader in the International Council of Women, joined Jane Addams in  promoting the peace movement through the International League for Peace and Freedom.  In addition to her school of social work, she founded in 1925 a Women’s Academy to prepare women, preferably qualified social workers, to undertake research and hopefully replace unqualified men as administrators in the social welfare system.

Her descriptions of the status of women in the various countries she visited is fascinating to read and I must give you her impression of the place of women in the U.S. on her first visit to New York n 1909.  She said: “I went home convinced that the United States is the paradise for women.”  She noted how generous men were in giving women material things and could hardly believe her eyes when a husband of a friend went with other male guests to wash the dishes while his wife entertained the women guests.  She wrote “I have never seen anything life this before.  It would have shocked a strong German male!”  She admired American women for their air of freedom their intelligence, political knowledge, etc. and told her friends in Berlin that in case she should be reborn once more as a woman, her only wish would be to be born an American.  (Autobiography, p.p. 116-117)  All of this while Jane Addams, the Abbott sisters, and their comrades were struggling to keep alive the cause of women’s suffrage!

There is no question about Edith Abbott’s or Eileen Younghusband’s commitment to women’s rights, but neither one was of the temperament to participate in demonstrations or climb the ramparts.  It is interesting to note, however, that Abbott and Younghusband did a great deal more than Salomon to attract me to social work as a profession.  Their reasons were fairly obvious.  The recruitment of men would lead to higher salaries an an improved stats for the profession.  Their reasons were fairly obvious.  The recruitment of men would lead to higher salaries and an improvement status for the profession.  Dame Eileen, wrote, with some asperity: “There is a deplorable tendency to think that, though a woman social worker needs training, a man has acquired all he needs to know through some all- sufficing experience of life which is a substitute for and not an enhancement of training.”  (Quoted in Jones, p. 51)  When men did come into the profession in considerable numbers after World War II, salaries were indeed improved, but I gather that the extent to which women have benefited on equal terms with men remains a sore point.

The final note on my three leaders, as I am sure you would guess, tells of their commitment to social work internationally.  There was nothing parochial about them as individuals or about their vision of social work and social work education.  They were concerned with the welfare of people world-wide.  Every graduate of SSA at the University f Chicago in Edith Abbott’s day was exposed to a view of the field and the profession that encompassed history and comparative study.  A social work curriculum that says nothing about our origins, our heritage, and seminal research form other lands wold have been inconceivable to her as I must say, parenthetically, it is to me.  Not long ago, in talking with a student about to graduate from one of our most prestigious schools of social work, I mentioned the Beveridge Report and discovered to my dismay that she had no idea what I was talking about.

Salomon and Younghusband were more directly involved than Abbott in the international field and made immense contributions to social work education around the world.  Alice Salomon chaired the Committee on Social Work Training at the first International Conference on Social Work held in Paris in 1928.  This lead to the establishment in 1929 of what is now the International Association of Schools of Social Work.  Dr. Salomon was the first President-Secretary and remained the leading figure in the growth of international social work education until her flight from Nazi Germany in 1937.  After World War II, Eileen Younghusband took up the baton, serving first as Vice-President and then as President of the IASSW.  From both, this was volunteer service of a higher order, requiring hours and years of unpaid work, miles of non-reimbursed travel, but the satisfaction of watching social work develop an an international discipline, with schools of social work producing qualified social workers in every continent was worth whatever the personal cost in time, energy, and money.  I shared in that satisfaction as the volunteer Secretary of the IASSW from 1954 to the establishment of a paid Secretariat in 1971.

Let me now sum up why I think these three women were great and, as or forebears, worthy of admiration and emulation.  First, a caveat.  They were not great because they were women.  We can be proud they were women, but the qualities that marked them for greatness are not sex related.

They were great because they had powerful minds, which they never ceased to sharpen with new knowledge and new experiences.  They were insatiably curious and they were scholars, always searching for better solutions to seemingly intractable social problems.  They believe, perhaps naively, that solid facts, carefully amassed and analyzed, would yield rational answers to troublesome questions and would, therefore, be heeded.  All produced landmark studies and reports that did, in fact, produce constructive action.

They were great because they cared about what happened to people and they believed in the worth and dignity of ever living creature.  They rejected the prevailing Lady Bountiful approach in favor of social justice for people in need.  In embracing the necessity to join social reform with individual help, they long ago settled the question of whether social work should be equally concerned with both therapeutic action and social action.

They were great because they were fighters.  They preserved against great obstacles – obstacles they faced as women and obstacles generated by their advanced ideas.  Sometimes, as fighters, they lost, but more often they won simply because they refused to give up.  Demanding much from themselves, they expected – even demanded – much from others.  They were obstinate.  It was not easy to challenge their views, but aren’t all great leaders touched by what we would now describe, perhaps erroneously, as authoritarianism?  Whatever it is called, the quality of being in command of oneself, of demanding and living up to high standards and being decisive in dealing with issues is, in my view, essential to leadership.

Source: Social Welfare Archives, University of Minnesota Library —