Skip to Content


Influential Women in the History of Social Work
March 14, 2018

By: Katherine Prull '19

March is designated as Women's History Month, a month to highlight the many contributions of women to events in history. Women in the field of social work have been highly influential in their fearless activism as champions of change, and breaking social norms. Below are a few examples of influential social work pioneers who have shown passion and courage in their work and paved the way for a better tomorrow through their actions and commitment.

If you have any other additional influential women in social work history that you'd like us to add, email

Jane Addams (1860–1935)
Jane Addams was a famous activist, social worker, author, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, and she is best known for founding the Hull House in Chicago, IL. Hull Housewas a progressive social settlement aimed at reducing poverty by providing social services and education to working class immigrants and laborers (Harvard University Library, n.d.).

Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954)
Mary Church Terrell was a charter member of the NAACP and an early advocate for civil rights and the suffrage movement. She was the co-founder and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women. Being one of the first Black women to earn a bachelor's and master's degree (1884 and 1888), she was also the first Black woman appointed to a school board and admitted to the Washingston D.C. Branch of the American Assoiciation of University Women. During her tenure as president of the NACW, from 1896 to 1901, Terrell became a well-known speaker and writer in the United States and overseas. After World War II, Terrell joined the burgeoning efforts to end legal segregation in Washington, D.C. 

Grace Abbott (1878 - 1939)
Abbott served as a political activist and social reformer whose pioneering contributions were in the areas of child labor legislation, child welfare issues, protection of immigrants' rights, women's rights, and social security. In 1908, she was appointed as Director of the Chicago Immigrants' Protective League. From 1917 to 1919, Abbott worked as an administrator with the Children's Bureau where she undertook the task of ensuring child labor protection. After this position, Abbott returned to Chicago and was appointed by the governor to be the director of the newly-established Illinois Immigration Commission. By 1921 Abbott returned to the Children's Bureau as the director. At the Bureau, she undertook the task of enforcing and administering the controversial Sheppard Towner Act. Although considered to be "a concession to communism," the Act ensured the establishment of health care for children and prenatal women, and provided grants-in-aid to the states to develop health care programs.


Frances Perkins (1880 – 1965)
Serving as Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt, Frances Perkins was the first woman to be a Presidential Cabinet member. A lifetime champion of labor reform, Perkins helped pass a minimum wage law and was one of the drafters of the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Social Security Act. The Department of Labor’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. is now named after her. Following her tenure as Secretary of Labor in 1945, President Harry S. Truman asked her to serve on the U. S. Civil Service Commission, which she did until her retirement in 1952.


Jeanette Rankin (1880–1973)
Jeannette Rankin was the first woman to serve in the U.S. Congress. She helped pass the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, and was a committed pacifist. In 1917 Rankin proposed the formation of a Committee on Woman Suffrage, of which she was appointed leader. Rankin made a return to politics in 1939. Running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, she won the election in part based on her antiwar position. She was the only member of Congress to vote against entering World Wars I and II.

Grace Coyle (1892-1962)
Most famous for developing and popularizing group work as a social work practice, Coyle served as the president of the National Conference of Social Work in 1940, the president of the American Association of Social Workers in 1942 and the Council on Social Work Education from 1958 to 60. Some of her most influential writings include Social Process in Organized Groups (1930), Group Experiences and Democratic Values (1947) and Social Science in the Professional Education of Social Workers (1958), among many others. 


Harriet Rinaldo (1906 - 1981)
Harrier Rinaldo worked as another pioneer of standardizing the social work profession. Her work with the Veteran's Administration Social Work Service produced personnel standards, rating procedures, and recruitment procedures that became a model for the federal government and other social work agencies. These standards were then adopted by the federal government. She was the first to identify "clinical social work" as a specialty standard within personnel specifications.  

Frances Lomas Feldman (1912 - 2008)
Frances Feldman had a great focus in Social policy and administration during her professional career. In addition to years as a social worker, administrator in the public welfare and the family service fields, and professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California in 1954, she has made several pioneering contributions to the profession. Feldman conducted a groundbreaking study in the 1970s that showed cancer patients faced discrimination in the workplace. Her research provided the first systematic evidence that employers and co-workers often imposed harsh, even illegal conditions on cancer survivors. According to the National Association of Social Workers, several states modified fair employment legislation because of the study. Numerous awards and honors have been bestowed on her. She has served on a number of state and national committees and commissions, including chairing the Governor's Advisory Committee on Mental Health.


Dorothy Height (1912–2010)
Dorothy Height was a civil rights and women's rights activist focused primarily on improving the circumstances of and opportunities for African-American women. Height worked closely with the Harlem YWCA where she was directing the integration of all of its centers in 1946. She also established its Center for Racial Justice in 1965. In 1957, Height became the president of the National Council of Negro Women. Through the center and the council, she became one of the leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement. Height worked with Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, John Lewis and James Farmer—sometimes called the "Big Six" of the Civil Rights Movement—on different campaigns and initiatives. Here tireless activism and other efforts continued even after retirement, as she organized the first Black Family Reunion, a celebration of traditions and values which is still held annually in 1986. 

Barbara Mikulski (1936- )
Senator Mikulski is the the first Democratic woman to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, the first woman to win a statewide election in Maryland, and the longest serving woman in the history of Congress. Prior to these historic victories, Mikulski worked with at-risk children in Baltimore and famously prevented construction of a 16-lane highway that may have prevented development of the harbor area and would have cut through the first black home ownership neighborhood. Mikulski is unofficially known as the “Dean of the Senate Women” for being a national leader on the issue of women’s health care, as one of the originators of the National Service concept, as a champion for the rights of working people, and as an aggressive advocate for jobs for Maryland.

Back to top