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A Sister’s Memories

The Life and Work of Grace Abbott from the Writings of Her Sister, Edith Abbott

A Sister’s Memories

The Life and Work of Grace Abbott from the Writings of Her Sister, Edith Abbott

Among the great figures of Progressive Era reform, Edith and Grace Abbott are perhaps the least sung. Peers, companions, and coworkers of legendary figures such as Jane Addams and Sophonisba Breckinridge, the Abbott sisters were nearly omnipresent in turn-of-the-century struggles to improve the lives of the poor and the working-class people who fed the industrial engines and crowded into diverse city neighborhoods. Grace’s innovative role as a leading champion for the rights of children, immigrants, and women earned her a key place in the history of the social justice movement. As her friend and colleague Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, Grace was “one of the great women of our day . . . a definite strength which we could count on for use in battle.”

A Sister’s Memories is the inspiring story of Grace Abbott (1878–1939), as told by her sister and social justice comrade, Edith Abbott (1876–1957). Edith recalls in vivid detail the Nebraska childhood, impressive achievements, and struggles of her sister who, as head of the Immigrants’ Protective League and the U.S. Children’s Bureau, championed children’s rights from the slums of Chicago to the villages of Appalachia. Grace’s crusade can perhaps be best summed up in her well-known credo: “Justice for all children is the high ideal in a democracy.” Her efforts saved the lives of thousands of children and immigrants and improved those of millions more. These trailblazing social service works led the way to the creation of the Social Security Act and UNICEF and caused the press to nickname her “The Mother of America’s 43 Million Children.” She was the first woman in American history to be nominated to the presidential cabinet and the first person to represent the United States at a committee of the League of Nations.

Edited by Abbott scholar John Sorensen, A Sister’s Memories is destined to become a classic. It shapes the diverse writings of Edith Abbott into a cohesive narrative for the first time and fills in the gaps of our understanding of Progressive Era reforms. Readers of all backgrounds will find themselves engrossed by this history of the unstoppable, pioneer feminist Abbott sisters.

376 pages | 5 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Biography and Letters

Chicago and Illinois

History: American History, Urban History

Social Work


A Sister’s Memories is a valuable addition to the historical literature on a generation of women reformers who did much to shape a new American social contract between 1900 and 1930. Editor Sorensen has woven together the scattered and incomplete segments of Edith Abbott’s memoirs into a well-crafted whole, finally allowing scholars to fill important gaps in the understanding of Edith and Grace Abbott’s contributions to Progressive reform. The book is essential reading for all who are interested in the Progressive-Era origins of modern America.”

Kathryn K. Sklar, author of Florence Kelley and the Nation's Work

“Edith Abbott left behind an unfinished memoir-biography of the life and work of her brilliant younger sister, Grace, the prominent Progressive advocate for immigrants and children. It has been Sorensen’s inspired and skillfully executed task to complete this biographical project, working with the incomplete text and the author’s fragmentary notes and rough drafts. Intended solely for the general reader, and thus free of footnotes or annotations, this lively and well-written book is just what we need to improve the lives of immigrants and children today—a guide to the best arguments and strategies, as captured in Grace Abbott’s remarkable story.”

Louise W. Knight | author of Jane Addams: Spirit in Action and Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle

“Grace Abbott emerged as one of the leading reformers of her generation. Studious, committed, and experienced, she worked with recent immigrants through Hull House in Chicago, headed the Children’s Bureau, and assisted in the crafting of New Deal legislation. This lightly edited volume, compiled from the notes and partially written chapters of her sister Edith, provides some insights about the motivation and dedication with which she undertook this work. Edith Abbott was an accomplished social welfare worker in her own right, and intended to publish a book to ensure that her sister’s contributions would be remembered. She included personal anecdotes about their childhood in Nebraska, their years spent in Chicago, and correspondence from Grace’s long service with the Children’s Bureau. . . . Recommended.”


“Unlike some of her well-known contemporaries and colleagues, such as Hull House founder Jane Addams and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Abbott is not a household name—not even among the social activists and social workers who now build on the foundation she helped to construct. With the publication of A Sister’s Memories, John Sorensen—serving as a sort of amanuensis for Grace Abbott’s sister Edith—aims to correct this oversight. . . . The credit for this readable volume goes both to Edith Abbott, who died before she could complete her intended four-volume memoir-biography, and to Sorensen, who has painstakingly assembled A Sister’s Memories from multiple versions of the extant manuscript held in far-flung repositories.”

Social Service Review

“The work of many women activists of the early twentieth century went undocumented and unheralded for decades, often until it was recovered by historians in the 1980s. Grace Abbott’s work, in particular, may have been dropped from the record because she did not position herself as a maternal guardian of children, but as an informed expert. Assertive rather than emotional, she spoke in languages—statistics, the law—that many men considered their exclusive domain. Women activists of this generation sometimes wrote their own and each other’s histories, perhaps because they knew no one else was going to. A Sister’s Memories reminds us that Progressive women reformers made themselves heard first by advocating for what they felt was right, and then by documenting what they had done.”

Times Literary Supplement

Table of Contents

Introduction   1

Part 1. A Prairie Childhood

1. Children of the Western Plains
2. Some Family Traditions: Abolition and the Civil War
3. Democracy on the High Plains
4. Our Prairie Home
5. The Rights of the Indian
6. The Rights of Women
7. Father’s Law Office
8. A Home of Law and Politics
9. The Children’s Day
10. Books in the Prairie Days
11. Grace and the Rights of Children
12. The Treeless Plains
13. The End of the Beginning

Part 2. The Hull House Years

14. Life at Hull House
15. Protecting Immigrant Arrivals
16. The Lost Immigrant Girls
17. The Children of Immigrants
18. Protecting Workers: Immigrants and Women
19. A Fair Deal: Banks and Courts
20. The “New Immigration”
21. Immigration at the Source
22. The Massachusetts Commission on Immigration
23. A Pacifist in the First World War
24. Julius Rosenwald
25. Votes for Women
26. The Children’s Bureau
27. The First Child Labor Law
28. The Tragedy of “Hammer v. Dagenhart”
29. Children and the War
30. Back to Chicago

Part 3. The Crusade for Children

31. The New Chief
32. The First Year
33. The Maternity Bill: A Matter of Life and Death
34. The Supreme Court and the Radio
35. The Children’s Amendment
36. Madame President
37. The Battle Continues
38. Publications and Politics
39. Geneva
40. Extending the Act
41. 1929
42. Grace Abbott for the Cabinet
43. The White House Conference
44. Conversion by Exigency
45. First Essentials
46. The Undying Fire

Appendix. The Undying Fire
Edith Abbott (1919)
Grace Abbott (1881)
Grace Abbott (1889/1900)
Grace Abbott with her niece Charlotte Abbott (1917/1918)
Edith Abbott and Grace Abbott (1930s)


The Nebraska Center for the Book: Nebraska Book Award

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