The Grace Abbott Reader

The Grace Abbott Reader

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This reader features the most influential and insightful writings of Grace Abbott (1878–1939), a tireless and brilliant social reformer in the early twentieth century. These writings contributed to the development of social programs that safeguarded mothers and children, protected immigrants from abuse, and rescued child laborers from the appalling conditions of the time. Framed by reminiscences and observations on her life by her sister, Edith Abbott, and other important historical figures, these writings recapture a critical turning point—and a significant voice—in the never-ending struggle for social justice in this nation. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter said he did not believe that “the American experience would disclose a finer illustration of the rare art of public administration” than Abbott and urged that her work be recorded for posterity. In Abbott's case, this “art” meant making life better and making real change possible for countless immigrants, women, and children. The Grace Abbott Reader, the first collection of Abbott’s stirring words, shows that the causes she pursued with fiery conscience and fierce determination are as relevant in our day as they were in hers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803294820
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska Paperback
Publication date: 10/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 170
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

John Sorensen is the executive director of the Abbott Sisters Project in New York City. He has written and lectured extensively on the lives and work of the Abbott sisters.  Judith Sealander is a professor of history at Bowling Green State University. Her most recent book is The Failed Century of the Child: Governing America’s Young in the Twentieth Century.

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The Grace Abbott Reader

By Grace Abbott, John Sorenson, Judith Sealander


Copyright © 2008 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9482-0


The Immigrant Girl

From "Within the City's Gates," Chicago Evening Post, December 23, 1909

Any woman can understand the nervous apprehension which the immigrant girl must feel as she comes into one of Chicago's bewildering railroad stations, but very few realize how well grounded her fears are. Friends and relatives find it impossible to meet them because immigrant trains are sidetracked for all other kinds of traffic, so that no one can determine when they are to arrive.

Not long ago I met an immigrant train that came in at the Polk Street station, and I understood better the stories the girls tell us. This train was due at seven-thirty in the morning, but arrived shortly after four in the afternoon, and I had to make three trips to the station, although I telephoned each time before starting.

Several hundred girls got off the train. Many of them were very young, and I felt their disappointment as they peered eagerly and anxiously about for the father or sister or friend they expected to see. Those who were going North or West came out the main gate, already ticketed by a representative of the transfer company, and were transferred without any confusion just as other travelers are.

But those who were to remain in Chicago were directed into a small immigrant waiting room which opens on Federal Street. Here they were hastily sorted into groups and then pushed out the door into the midst of ten or twelve expressmen who were crowding and pushing and quarreling over the division of spoils. In a short time the struggle was over and they had all been loaded into the waiting wagons.

By this time it was almost dark and I watched them drive away with many misgivings. For I remembered the little Irish girl who told us she started on a wagon with a group of other immigrants for the South Side. After going some distance, the expressman discovered she had a North Side address, so charging her four dollars, he put her off the wagon without any suggestion as to what she should do.

And then, too, I remembered the Polish girl of seventeen who was taken at three o'clock in the morning to the place where her sister was supposed to live. But the address was incorrect and the woman who lived there angrily refused to let her stay until morning. She had only a few dollars and wept disconsolately when the expressman told her "nobody could find her sister if nobody knew her address, and that he wasn't going to take her back for nothing." The saloonkeeper next door finally offered her a refuge and she lived with his family behind the saloon three days before her sister, who was making daily trips to the depot, was found.

* * *

Officials and officers at the Grand Central Station feel a certain responsibility for the women and children who come in at the station, and require the expressmen to bring back to the depot all those whose friends or relatives are not found. From there they are usually referred to the League. Not long ago a twelve-year-old German boy was brought to the office in this way. The policeman assured him that we would take good care of him, but he found it very hard to be brave when he faced the fact that he was hungry and without money, and that his big brother who had sent him his ticket and was going to look out for him, could not be found. While the boy was being cared for, a visitor for the League started on the trail of the brother. He was found before night, although he had moved three times since he left the place the address of which his little brother had brought. The steamship agent had promised to notify him when the boy would arrive, and he had carefully kept the agent informed about the change of his address.

* * *

If the United States immigration department would establish a protective bureau ... the situation might be greatly improved. ... There should be one central place in Chicago to which those who are expecting friends or relatives from Europe might go and learn whether they had come, and to whom they had been released.

Only this morning the distracted relatives of a young Polish woman, who telegraphed that she was leaving Ellis Island Nov. 16 and has not been heard from since, were in the office asking us to find the girl. We may be able to trace her, but the only official information will be the record of when she left Ellis Island. No one knows who are expected and never arrive.


The Education of Foreigners in American Citizenship

From the Report of the School Extension Committee, 1910

The importance of the task of preparing for American citizenship our yearly additions of foreigners is little appreciated by the American public. In Chicago we have something like thirty-six nationalities represented in our population, and Chicago's population is not more complex than that of most American cities. More than two-thirds of its people are either "foreign born" or "native born of foreign parentage," and the remaining one-third is attempting to make the necessary adjustments among these thirty-six groups and at the same time to bring them all under a dominating American influence. If one were to ask the average American how these people are initiated into our social, industrial, and political life, he would probably tell you either that it was not accomplished at all, and that we ought to keep out "these hordes of Europeans"; or else he would say that he knew nothing of the process, but it was being done. He was sure it was, because look at this, that or the other great and distinguished American who had come to the country fifteen or twenty years ago with no assets except his own courage and thrift, and was now a great power for good in the community. As a matter of fact, both these points of view are in a certain sense right. We are absorbing the immigrant into our national life, but the question is, are we doing it intelligently and economically or with a recklessly extravagant disregard for the men and women who are lost in the process.

As a community we are relying upon the public schools to accomplish this work of Americanization, in the belief that if the children are properly trained, the future will take care of itself, for the parents are only a one-generation difficulty anyway. While this disregard of the possible usefulness or danger in the thousands of men and women who come to us every year results in great loss to the community, the assumption which seems to justify it is unwarranted, for the immigrant child cannot be properly trained in American citizenship if nothing is done for his parents.

Apparently our settled policy in the treatment of our foreign population is to ignore the fact that they are foreign. As though — by pretending that the Italian's social, industrial and political traditions are the same as ours — they will, by some miracle, become so. This has been the great American faith-cure treatment for the difficulties which come from our complex population, the results of which have not always justified the faith.

In the case of the children, we have probably incorrectly assumed that the training which the immigrant child needs is the same as the training which the American born child should have. Under the present system American habits of dress, speech, and manners are very rapidly acquired, and in the narrow field of teaching reading, writing and arithmetic the schools have probably met the expectations of the public. But this equipment is not proving an adequate protection for the immigrant child against the temptations which he has to meet. Although the percentage of crime is smaller among our foreign-born citizens than among the native-born Americans, the records of the juvenile court show that more than three-fourths of the children brought into the court are of foreign parentage. These children have not, of course, committed "crimes" in most cases. Any man whose boyhood included the larks usual to that age would be apt to conclude, after reading over the Illinois or Colorado definition of delinquency, that it was just as well there were no juvenile courts when he was a boy, for he would have been the despair of judge and probation officer. But this would not, of course, have been the case. The American father or mother whose child commits these small violations of the law, understanding the situation, is able by the substitution of a new and wholesome interest for the dangerous one to prevent the commission of more serious offenses. But the immigrant parent finds this extremely difficult to do. His children, because of the rapid strides they have made in the public schools, have become the interpreters of America to him. Many things which the old-world father or mother frowns on, "all the kids do here" — a statement sometimes correct and at other times dangerously incorrect. The American mother who has found herself quite helpless before a similar argument which clearly indicated that the girl or boy thought her standards old-fashioned, can appreciate in some measure the difficulty of the Italian or Polish parents. For them it is much intensified by their peculiar dependence upon their children. They speak to the boss, the landlord, the policeman — all the great in their world — through their children. In such a family the oldest child usually refers to the children as "mine." "My fader's gotter get work because my Charlie haint got no shoes," he explains as the reason for making an appeal to you for advice as to where his father's services may find a market. And when this boy or girl after going to work is able, because of his knowledge of English and familiarity with certain American customs, to earn more than the father, family relationships are completely reversed. When such a child becomes tired of the burden of responsibility which he has so early assumed and makes a few gay excursions with his gang, his father's word of warning is little heeded and so the assistants of the judge of the juvenile court and the probation officers are trying to do this, but with the best intentions in the world we are usually widening the gap between the parent and the child by the policy we are following in our public schools. In our zeal to teach patriotism, we are often teaching disrespect for the history and traditions which the immigrant parent had a part in making, and so for the parent himself. Some teachers, with a quick appreciation of the difficulty the family is meeting in the sudden change of national heroes and standards, are able to avoid mistakes of this sort by making it clear that the story of the struggle for Italian nationalism is a thrilling one to us, and that Bohemian leaders, because of their long fight for religious liberty, are heroes to Americans. A little Greek boy who is a friend of mine explained, "My teacher likes me because I tell her stories of the Athens." Whether Miss O'Grady really cared for the stories he told of the city from which so few of our Greek immigrants come and yet whose history and traditions are so intimately loved by them, I cannot say. But I do know that both the school and Athens occupied a different place in the eyes of the boy because of the seeming interest of the teacher. Such results should not be left to the casual interests of the teacher. In every foreign neighborhood the transition from the old to the new world heroes and ideals should be very carefully worked out or else the change will result disastrously for either the parent or the child.

Respect for the father's work ought also to be taught. In one part of Chicago, which is known as Grand Crossing, the life of the neighborhood centers in the elevation of the network of railroad tracks which cross there in entering the city. A very intelligent superintendent of this district made this undertaking the basis of a large part of the regular school work. The children made models in wood and clay and paper of the completed work and of the machinery and tools which were used. Little essays explained the need of the work and who was responsible for its being undertaken. All of this was in accordance with the soundest pedagogical principles since "all school training must adapt itself to the background of life which the children live," but equally important, it was giving to the children a new respect for the work their fathers did, and I have no doubt that in the minds of the men themselves, what had been merely a means of livelihood became, in a way, a public service.

... But however well the children may be taught, however ingeniously we may try to reach the parent through the child, we will fail in our ultimate purpose of making the best possible citizens of the children, unless the community concerns itself actively in the education of the adult immigrant.

The great majority of people who come to us from Europe are young people between fifteen and thirty years of age. All of them know something of the industrial conditions in America — that is a reason for their coming. But of labor laws designed for their protection, of the employment agent and his practices, of possible markets for their skill, of what is a fair wage in America, they know nothing at all. All of them know we have a republican form of government. That, too, is a reason for their coming. Most of them know something also of the history of the country and of the principles which it has championed before the world. But of the American political machinery by which we attempt to put into practice our republican principles, they know nothing. In most cities, all that we are offering this army of young men and women is instruction in English in our night schools. Even this is often so poorly done as to discourage all but the most ambitious or the hopelessly stupid. One still finds large classes of men crowded into seats intended for children of ten or fifteen years of age, reading from a primer of the "see the cat on the mat" variety. Some books whose words and pictures are based on the work and life of the men have been published recently and are making possible much better instruction than formerly. Miss Addams tells the story of one eager teacher who, feeling the need of some connection between the life of the class and the teaching of English, prepared a series of lessons. The class was to begin with the sentence "I get up early every morning." That in theory was to be followed by "I wash my face," and so on until they had been through the regular morning routine as she conceived it. The plan was explained to the class, a group of Italian girls, who could speak some English but could not read or write. They were all home finishers of men's ready-made clothes — at that time one of the sweated industries in Chicago. The girls entered enthusiastically on the plan. They began according to the scheme with "I get up early every morning," but followed in concert with "I sew pants all day." With these girls, as with the rest of us, the work they were doing seemed the important thing, and eating and washing were after all mere details, relegated to the background when it came to a discussion of the day's program. It is needless to say that after that the lessons given the girls were based on the tailoring trade.

... But many Americans are not satisfied with the teaching of English alone. They want instructions in what they call the fundamental American principles. When I have tried to discover just what they have in mind, I have usually found they feel it would be a good thing to put immediately into the immigrant's hands the story of Lincoln and Washington, and that patriotic instruction should be made the basis of all of their future work. Of course none of us can read too often the story of these men or others who have stood for great causes in the history of the world, but the most sincere admirer of Lincoln would not contend that his utterances would serve as a practical guide in the election of aldermen. The fundamental Americanisms, I am convinced, cannot be taught by the method of direct assault, so to speak, and we should not be discouraged at failures when it is used. Probably we would put the principle of religious toleration well along toward the first of the characteristics which we regard as distinctly American, and are especially anxious to cherish. But when I think how long it took to Americanize my own Puritan ancestors, judged by this test, I hope no one will be discouraged if the Italian fails to learn it in a course of ten lessons in the fundamentals.

Many Americans, as a matter of fact, regard as of first importance a change in the superficial habits — the speech, dress, and housekeeping — of the immigrants. And yet no one of us really sees any danger in the use of black bread instead of white, or in wearing a shawl instead of a hat. Americanization in these things will come rapidly enough. What we must do, if the immigrant is to become a desirable citizen, is to preserve his simple honesty and thrift, and his faith in America and American institutions. As the first step in this process, he needs to know almost immediately on his arrival the practices of employment agents and the remedies that are open to him in cases of abuse; the requirements for licenses in certain trades; something of our labor laws; something of our sanitary regulations; how he may protect himself against violations by his neighbors of the health code; and how he may send home money to his wife or his mother. These are the things which the public schools should be giving the immigrant in his own language by means of illustrated lectures. To wait until the immigrant learns these things in the school of bitter experience is not only to make him suffer an unnecessary financial loss, but his future usefulness is much impaired if he is exploited and robbed from the moment of his arrival. Consequently, it is important from the standpoint of the community's good that he be given this initial instruction. Following this, there should be a course in the practical workings of the American government, also in the language of the immigrant. With the sort of instruction in English usually given the immigrant — and even with the very best instruction — he is unable to understand any difficult presentation of facts in English, although he may have been here for some years. And he is, therefore, quite dependent upon his native language in any preparation for naturalization and the responsibility of citizenship. Instruction can be given by means of a "guide" which contains all there is to be known about America, but he finds reading difficult and can be reached only by practical instruction in our public schools. There need be no fear that the use of another language in anyway menaces the continued use of the English language in America. There is no danger that the Bohemian children in the Bohemian neighborhood are not going to learn to talk English. But there is a very real danger that those children are not going to become the sort of men and women we want them to, unless we do something for their Bohemian parents. The public libraries are undertaking to meet the cultural demands of these groups of foreigners by supplying them with books in their own language. The public schools should become a real educational center for the adults as well as the children of the neighborhood. Then a very different sort of preparation for citizenship would be possible.


Excerpted from The Grace Abbott Reader by Grace Abbott, John Sorenson, Judith Sealander. Copyright © 2008 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Edith Abbott and "A Sister's Memories",
Grace Abbott: A Biographical Timeline,
Introduction: Hull House Days (ca. 1952) — Edith Abbott,
1. The Immigrant Girl (1909),
2. The Education of Foreigners in American Citizenship (1910),
3. The Immigrant as a Problem in Community Planning (1917),
4. Problems of the Immigrant Girl (1917),
Introduction: The Maternity and Infancy Revolution (ca. 1952) — Edith Abbott,
5. A Constitutional Amendment (1920),
6. Public Protection for Children (1924),
7. Perpetuating May Day (1929),
8. The Next Steps (1929),
9. Boarding Out (1930),
10. The Challenge of Child Welfare (1931),
11. The Real American Vice (1931),
12. The Washington Traffic Jam (1931),
13. Why Did Child Labor Ever Develop in America? (ca. 1933),
14. Promoting the Welfare of All Children (1937),
15. Children and the Depression (pub. 1941),
Introduction: How Women Achieve in Government (1939) — Frances Perkins,
16. Dorothea Dix (1926),
17. Women (1933),
18. The Changing Position of Women in Government (1930),
Postscript — Dr. Jeanne C. Marsh,
Source Acknowledgments,

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