Social Reform Advocates – Women in History

Women have been at the forefront of many social reform movements during the history of our country. The movements to which we are referring include civil rights, suffrage, the elimination of child labor, disability rights, assistance to survivors of sexual assault, women’s rights, and others. Let’s discover more about some of these social reform advocates.

Dorothea Dix

Humanitarian Dorothea Dix exposed the harsh treatment of the mentally ill when her report documenting an eighteen-month survey of facilities throughout the state was presented to the Massachusetts legislature. The report spoke of horrible conditions including filth, cruelty and disease. Dix presented reports in other states, and her careful research and public speaking led to the construction of the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum in Trenton in 1848, which she dubbed her “firstborn child.” The institution became a model for the humane care of the mentally ill. In 1843, there were 13 mental hospitals in the United States. By 1880, due to Dix’s efforts, and those of her colleagues, there were 123. Her efforts also helped provide the foundation for enhancements to diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Dix has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, a U.S. postage stamp has been issued to honor her, a crater on Venus has been named for her, and a U.S. Navy transport ship during World War II was named for her.

Helen Keller

Helen Keller became blind and deaf when she was 19 months old. Unable to effectively communicate with those around her, when she was seven years old, her life changed and her intelligence and capabilities grew when she learned to communicate with sign language through the help of her teacher and later life-long companion, Anne Sullivan (Macy). With Sullivan’s assistance, Keller was able to attend specialized as well as mainstream schools in preparation for attending college. A graduate of Radcliffe College (Phi Beta Kappa), Keller became the first blind and deaf person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. As an advocate for individuals with disabilities, Keller served as an inspiration to disabled people the world over. She learned to speak and gave lectures all over the world to encourage support for those with disabilities. Her autobiography was titled The Story of My Life. It was popularized through the play and movie The Miracle Worker. One of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union, Keller was also an advocate for women’s rights and birth control. She has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, been featured with Anne Sullivan Macy on a U.S. postage stamp, and her statue is one of the two representing the state of Alabama in National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.

Edith Abbott

Social reformer Edith Abbott began working at Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago for new immigrants, in 1908. An educator, Abbott became the first female dean in the U.S. when she assumed that position in 1924 at the University of Chicago. Determined to reflect humanitarianism in education, Abbott, whose Ph.D. was in economics, believed in establishing programs to reduce or eliminate poverty. Living at Hull House afforded her the opportunity to advocate for women’s and children’s rights, as well as immigration and public assistance. She helped write the 1935 Social Security Act and served at one point on the California Supreme Court. Abbott also transformed the field of social work emphasizing the importance of formal education accompanied by field work. She wrote more than one hundred books and articles about public welfare and social injustices.

Grace Abbott

Social worker Grace Abbott improved the rights of immigrants and worked to eradicate child labor. After completing her undergraduate and graduate degrees, she lived at Hull House in Chicago, with her older sister Edith. In Chicago, she was a stalwart supporter of the rights of immigrants, testifying before Congress on this topic. She also worked on women’s rights. Abbott was employed at the Children’s Bureau from 1917 to 1919, working to ensure child labor protection. Later, she was a professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago and is credited with being a primary force behind the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935.

Marilyn Van Derbur Atler

Incest survivor Marilyn Van Derbur Atler has given hope to many, through her recovery from years of abuse. The 1958 Miss America, representing Colorado, Atler, who had spent years as one of the country’s top motivational speakers, revealed in 1991 that she was a survivor. She established the Survivor United Network to help others with emotional help and support to start their recovery process. After her story appeared on the cover of People magazine, she thought her worst nightmare had occurred. Yet, she now considers it among her greatest blessings. Atler has spoken in more than five hundred cities and been in touch with more adult survivors of rape/sexual assault than anyone in the country. Her book Miss America by Day received Writer’s Digest Most Inspirational Book Award. Atler has been inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame, and the Colorado Authors’ Hall of Fame. An earlier version of the 2019 documentary, An Incest Survivor’s Odyssey, won the 2018 Los Angeles Film Festival Most Inspiring Woman in Film Award.

These social reform advocates, as well as many other women, almost all of whom we have not heard about nor learned about in school, are profiled in our book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. Help us by continuing to tell the stories of the women who came before us, on whose shoulders we all stand. Tell young women especially so they understand that they can dream BIG, and then make their dreams a reality.

Jill Tietjen
Author: Jill Tietjen

Jill S. Tietjen, PE, is an author, national speaker, and an electrical engineer. After 40 years in the electric utility industry, her professional focus is now on women’s advocacy, worldwide. She blogs for The Huffington Post, speaks nationally on the accomplishments of women, nominates women for awards, and continues to write books (8 published to date), following in the footsteps of her bestselling and award-winning book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (written with Charlotte Waisman). She is a frequent keynote speaker as her positive energy and her ability to relate to the audience result in inspired and energized listeners. The recipient of many awards, her induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 remains one of her most treasured.

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