Learn more about the game-changing social work pioneers and movements that have created a lasting influence on the practice today.

From Jane Addams, the first social worker and co-founder of the first settlement house, to the social justice and civil rights activists who advanced the social work profession throughout the 20th century, social work pioneers overcame enormous obstacles to protect and promote human rights.

These important figures in social work have left a legacy — an inspiration and example for those with the character and fortitude to take up the mantle.

According to the National Association of Social Workers, it is projected that the number of jobs in social work will increase by 89,000 through 2030.

Whether you aspire to work in a school or hospital setting, with families and children, or as part of a mental health team, these famous social workers have laid the groundwork for future generations to shape communities and enact social change.

Jane Addams (1860–1935)

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Jane Addams is known by many as the mother of social work. Originally planning to become a doctor, Addams had always had aspirations of helping the poor. When health problems thwarted her dream of going into medicine, Addams committed herself wholeheartedly to social work.

In 1889, she and Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House in Chicago, the first settlement house in the United States. In her book, Twenty Years at Hull-House: With Autobiographical Notes, Addams stated that the mission of Hull House was “to provide a center for a higher civic and social life; to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago.”

A seminal figure in the history of social work, in 1931 Addams became the second woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Addams held numerous positions of leadership and service, including:

  • Member of Chicago’s Board of Education
  • Chairman of the School Management Committee
  • Founding member of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy
  • First woman president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections
  • Chairman of the Women’s Peace Party
  • President of the International Congress of Women
  • President of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

As Herbert Hoover’s assistant, Addams provided relief supplies to the women and children of enemy nations.

In 1910, Yale University bestowed upon Addams the first honorary degree awarded to a woman.

Amelia Earhart (1897–1939)

A lesser-known fact about the first woman to fly across the Atlantic is her early tenure as a social worker at a settlement house in Boston, Massachusetts.

Before Amelia Earhart took her first flying lesson and went on to become one of the most influential women in history, she followed her passion for helping others at Denison House in Boston.

Her time at the settlement house was spent educating adults and young girls, organizing women’s clubs, and coaching girls’ sports. She was also appointed as the Denison House delegate to the Conference of the National Federations of Settlements.

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Image courtesy of Digital Commonwealth

Earhart’s advocacy for gender equality and her convictions regarding social change led her to become an influential figure in the field of social work — beyond the walls of Denison House.

In many ways, Earhart’s success as an aviator was an extension of her devotion to the ideals of the social work trailblazers of the time. Her determination and commitment to her aviation career, she believed, served as an example for women everywhere.

Earhart emphasized the importance of action, encouraging women to pave the way for others through their own fearlessness, stating:

“…now, and then, women should do for themselves what men have already done—occasionally what men have not done—thereby establishing themselves as persons, and perhaps encouraging other women toward greater independence of thought and action. Some such consideration was a contributing reason for my wanting to do what I so much wanted to do.”

Barbara Mikulski (1936– )

Barbara Mikulski was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1936. She earned her Master of Social Work degree (MSW) from the University of Maryland in 1965 and began her career when the civil rights movement was still underway, fighting against segregation and working to ease racial tensions in Baltimore.

Her achievements — beginning with her election to the Baltimore City Council in 1971 — opened doors for women in leadership and politics. She began her first term in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1976. Considered the “dean of the women in the Senate,” Mikulski served in the House and the Senate, culminating in the longest tenure of any woman in the U.S. Congress.

Mikulski organized the Southeast Council Against the Road (SCAR), an initiative to prevent the construction of a highway that would have wiped out racially and economically diverse residential areas of Baltimore.

A proponent of women in leadership and wage equality, Mikulski sponsored the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 and the Paycheck Fairness Act to close the wage gap.

Her diligent work toward social reform has made Mikulski one of the most respected and influential figures in the field.

Mikulski’s Notable Achievements

  • Helped to establish the Southeast Council Against the Road (SCAR)
  • Established commissions on the care of the elderly and rape victims
  • First woman to serve on the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce
  • First woman chair of the Appropriations Committee
  • Served on the Select Committee on Intelligence
  • Introduced Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 1990
  • Sponsored the Paycheck Fairness Act
  • Co-sponsor of the act that repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Upon Mikulski’s retirement from Congress, President Barack Obama praised her accomplishments, saying, “Barbara has wielded her gavel and used her booming voice to advocate on behalf of paycheck fairness, childcare, health care, education, women’s rights, and countless issues that have contributed to the strength of America’s families.”

And in 2015, President Obama awarded Mikulski the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Dr. Alfred M. Neumann (1910–2002)

In 1934, Alfred Mayer Neumann received a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from the University of Vienna. Shortly after, he fled to the United States, and in 1941, Neumann earned his master’s degree in social work from Columbia University. He later attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work.

Among his many contributions to the field of social work throughout his life, Dr. Neumann advanced critical social issues, including immigration, child welfare, and adoption.

In 1965, he supported a bill introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives to allow taxpayers who adopt a child to deduct the expenses associated with the adoption process from their gross income. The purpose of the bill, introduced by Democratic Representative John Clement Zablocki, was to encourage adoption.

Dr. Neumann’s response to Zablocki in support of the legislation read:

“Your suggestion regarding legislation to provide tax exemption for adoptive parents is timely, fair, and, above all, very, very helpful. You don’t know how much pressure is being brought to bear upon adoption agencies on the part of adoptive parents who go through a great deal of expenses in giving a homeless child a home–why not treat an adoptive child as it is being legally treated: like a natural child, after adoption procedures are concluded? Thank you again. Good luck, and if there is anything that we can do to encourage and support you further, let us know.”

Neumann served in many social organizations, most notably as the executive director and executive vice president of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Colorado, where he worked from 1948 to 1976.

Throughout his career, Neumann held posts at the following organizations and social welfare agencies:

  • The Governor’s Committee on Resettlement of Refugees
  • Jewish Social Service Association in New York City
  • Youth Bureau in Cleveland, Ohio
  • Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Minneapolis
  • Office of Economic Opportunity
  • Head Start

He participated in the organization of the Jewish Family Service’s Utility Workshop in 1954. Dr. Neumann continued his social work practice into his retirement, conducting Head Start training for staff and volunteers.

Francis Perkins (1880–1965)

As a student at Mount Holyoke, Francis “Fanny” Perkins visited the Holyoke mills to observe working conditions as part of an American economic history course. She was appalled by the abuses of the workers, especially the women and children. The lack of protective regulations and health provisions ignited in her a passion for social change.

In response to her visit to the mills, Perkins and a group of students organized a chapter of the National Consumers League. After hearing Florence Kelley, executive secretary of the National Consumers League, speak, Perkins set out to do “the work which became my vocation.”

Notable Achievements and Positions

  • General secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association
  • Fellowship with the New York School of Philanthropy (1909)
  • Executive Secretary of the New York City Consumers League (1910)
  • Executive Secretary of the Committee on Safety (1911)
  • Appointed executive secretary of the Council on Immigrant Education
  • Appointed New York State Industrial Commissioner (1929)
  • Member of the Special Board for Public Works
  • Committee on Economic Security (1934)
  • Contributed to the Fair Labor Standards Act
  • Head of the American delegation to the International Labor Organization
  • Appointed to United States Civil Service Commission

As a labor lobbyist and expert on worker safety, Perkins was instrumental in the Factory Investigating Commission’s study of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 workers, and other hazards to the health and safety of industrial workers.

Regarding the health and safety labor laws that resulted from the commission’s study, Perkins stated, “The extent to which this legislation in New York marked a change in American political attitudes and policies toward social responsibility can scarcely be overrated. It was, I am convinced, a turning point.”

Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Perkins was the first woman to serve in a Presidential cabinet when she was appointed Secretary of Labor in 1933.

Perkins’s priorities as Secretary of Labor included:

  • 40-hour work week
  • Minimum wage
  • Unemployment compensation
  • Worker’s compensation
  • Abolition of child labor
  • Direct federal aid to the states for unemployment relief
  • Social Security
  • Revitalized federal employment service
  • Universal health insurance

Perkins served the United States Civil Service Commission until 1953 and concluded her distinguished and inspirational career by promoting social work education as a writer and lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial Relations.

Jeannette Rankin (1880–1973)

In 1904, Jeanette Rankin began volunteering at the Telegraph Hill settlement house in San Francisco. She graduated in 1909 from the New York School of Philanthropy and moved to Spokane, Washington, where she worked with children in need while taking social sciences classes.

Her activism during the Progressive Era included campaigning for better working conditions for laborers, improved health care for women and children, and prohibition. Her involvement in the suffrage movement led to her role as field secretary of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1910.

According to the Office of Art & Archives, Rankin “singlehandedly convinced much of the Montana house to support the [women’s suffrage resolution], reviving the state’s long-dormant suffrage movement.”

Rankin was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1916 — the first woman to achieve that status.

Of her victory, Rankin said, “I am deeply conscious of the responsibility, and it is wonderful to have the opportunity to be the first woman to sit in Congress. I will not only represent the women of Montana, but also the women of the country, and I have plenty of work cut out for me.”

While serving in Congress, she introduced the Susan B. Anthony amendment, a suffrage amendment that was passed a year later.

In 1917, after 168 miners perished in a fire in a mine owned by the Anaconda Company, Rankin testified before the House Mines and Mining Committee about the company’s dangerous working conditions.

Rankin’s Noteworthy Roles & Achievements

  • Ranking Member of the new Suffrage Committee (1917)
  • Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (1919)
  • Lobbied on behalf of the National Consumers’ League for social welfare legislation (1924)
  • Organized the Georgia Peace Society (1928)
  • Congressional lobbyist for the National Council for the Prevention of War

A lifetime pacifist, Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote “no” on the United States entering World Wars I and II. In 1968, after she retired from Congress, she led the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, a march on Washington to protest the Vietnam War.

Mary Richmond (1861–1928)

Mary Ellen Richmond was a visionary whose groundbreaking contribution to the profession of social work earned her the moniker “the mother of social casework.”

Establishing a methodology for social work that incorporated individuals and families, social ties, communities, and government as the basis for addressing social problems, Richmond wrote several books on social casework, including “Social Diagnosis” and “What is Social Case Work.”

In the latter, published in 1922, Richmond asserted that social case workers must operate based on a philosophy and offered three foundations upon which she’d built her own.

  • Human beings are interdependent.
  • Human beings are different.
  • Human beings are not dependent and domestic animals.

Richmond had called for professional training for social workers decades earlier in a speech she gave at the 1897 National Conference of Charities and Correction.

Her speech revealed her pioneering spirit as she implored her colleagues: “Moreover, we owe [training and education] to those who shall come after us that they shall be spared the groping and blundering by which we have acquired our own stock of experience.”

In addition to endorsing the professionalization of social work, Richmond lobbied for legislation to improve social policy around health, education, labor, and housing, specifically regarding women and children.

In 1913, while at the Charity Organization Department, Richmond studied widows and their families to observe their financial well-being and interactions with social welfare agencies and to suggest improvement to treatment standards.

Richmond’s Notable Roles

  • Executive director of the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charity
  • Director of the Charity Organization Department, Russell Sage Foundation (1909)

Ida B. Wells (1862–1931)

Ida B. Wells, the oldest of eight children, worked as a schoolteacher in Mississippi after the death of her parents and youngest brother when she was only 16 years old.

Wells experienced first-hand the impact of the Jim Crow laws of the post-Reconstruction era when she was forcibly removed from a train traveling from Memphis to Mississippi. She later wrote about racism and activism as the first woman editor and co-owner of a Black newspaper, the “Memphis Free Speech and Headlight.”

Following the lynching death of her friend, Thomas Moss, Wells, a skilled journalist, social reformer, and crusader for the rights of women and African Americans, began an anti-lynching campaign.

Working alongside social and political reformers such as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, and Mary Church Terrell, Wells spoke out against the horrors of lynchings of African Americans and leveraged her journalistic talents to expose the truth behind the atrocities.

Wells’s Notable Posts and Achievements

  • Founding Member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
  • Universal Negro Improvement Association
  • National Equal Rights League
  • National Association of Colored Women
  • Pulitzer Prize in Special Citations and Awards (Posthumous, 2020)

The legacies left by these important figures in social work cannot be overstated. Through their courage and persistence, they changed the very fabric of American society. It takes integrity and fortitude to venture into the honorable field of social work.

If you think you hear the call of a career in social work, find out more about the profession.