Five Women Who Made History in Social Work

Did you know March is Women’s History Month and Social Work Month? Women have been and continue to be crucial to the work of health and human services organizations. Check out these five influential women who helped shape social work into what it is today.

Origins of Modern Social Work 

While social work is an integral part of our communities, it actually has not been around very long. History shows that communities and governments made little effort towards organized approaches to helping those in need.  

This began to change at the beginning of the 20th century as modern social work started to take shape. Strong and determined women were central to this movement. These pioneers fought discrimination and misinformation to establish reliable standards, fight for human rights, and ultimately help people most in need.  

Today, women continue to lead the field of social work. According to the Council on Social Work Education, over 83% of social workers are female. These women work in the social fields of homelessness, domestic violence, refugee resettlement, food insecurity, and behavioral health. These jobs are often mentally and physically taxing, requiring both passion and courage to stand up for those in communities that are often overlooked. 

In honor of both Women’s History Month and Social Work Month, we are highlighting these five women who pioneered modern social work. Their fearless activism and bold advocacy stand as both testaments to the determination of social workers and as examples for health and human service organizations to emulate. 

Jane Addams (1860 – 1935) 

Jane Addams was a prolific settlement activist, philosopher, public administrator, social worker, protestor, and author. Known as the “mother” of social work, she established Chicago’s Hull House which would go on to become one of the most famous settlement houses in the US. Hull House. Addams provided social services to the Hull House’s community and offered programs on civic, cultural, recreational, and educational topics. The Hull House group would later advocate for better housing, public welfare improvements, stricter child-labor laws, and protections for women in the workforce. 

Addams’ work extended well beyond Hull House. She was a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and established the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. During a time when women were just beginning to gain suffrage, Jane broke through barrier by becoming the first female president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections. She additionally became the president of the Women’s International Peace Congress at the Hague. 

In 1931, Addams became the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and is recognized as the founder of the social work profession in the US. 

Her philosophy focused on system-directed change and revolved around keeping families safe. Her three ethical principles for social settlements were to “teach by example, to practice cooperation, and to practice social democracy”.  


Mary Ellen Richmond (1861 – 1928)

Mary Ellen Richmond is credited with establishing much of the professionalism and standardization of social work. She was an avid researcher and pushed for uniformity in methodological practices, including gathering information, proper interviewing, and clear reporting. 

Richmond grew up surrounded by conversations on women’s suffrage, racial discrimination, and spirituality. This foundation helped in writing her book, Social Diagnosis, which became one of the first books on social work to include scientific principles from medicine, law, psychiatry, psychology, and history. Her philosophies in Social Diagnosis emphasized the importance of people’s social environments on their life situation. These ideas would later pave the way for today’s social determinants of health. 

Mary Richmond’s perspective was deeply enrichened by her time as a “friendly visitor”. With field experience in helping the disadvantaged, she sought to fully understand the problems poor people dealt with. Her legacy in establishing standards for social workers continues to this day. 

Ida B. Wells (1862 – 1931) 

Ida B. Wells work as a social advocate is impressive not only due to the gender discrimination of her time, but also in considering the immense racial inequality. Born into slavery in 1862, Wells became the first person to document the lynching of African Americans. Her work in racial and gender equality became the foundation for modern social work organizations. For example, she founded the Alpha Suffrage League and challenged the racial segregation of the mainstream Women’s Suffragette movement. She was also involved in founding the NAACP. 

Ida’s life was frequently at risk and she was often the target of supremacist violence. Notwithstanding, she continued to use journalism to advocate for the disenfranchised and bring light to social issues. Ida B. Wells helped open settlement houses for African Americans migrating from the South to the North and expanded school access for black children.  

Wells’ legacy continues to live on and serves as a reminder to tirelessly advocate for those in need. She is quoted as saying, “one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap”. 

Jeanette Rankin (1880 – 1973)

Jeanette Rankin was a politician, social worker, and activist. She began her career in social work by helping the disadvantaged in San Fransisco. She later studied at the New York School of Philanthropy in New York City, which would become the School of Social Work at Columbia University. 

In 1917, Rankin became the first woman to serve in Congress. Voted in as Montana’s Congresswoman, she won office after Montana had passed equal gender voting rights before women’s suffrage was universal. While on the house floor, she became a driving force in passing the 19th amendment. Rankin stands as an icon of feminism, suffrage, and advocacy.  

Rankin is recorded as saying that social work was “her calling” and spent her political career fighting for rights of the disenfranchised and disadvantaged. In 1968, Jeanette organized an anti-war march in Washington DC with a coalition of women’s peace groups. This became the largest march by women since the Women Suffrage parade of 1913. 

Harriet Rinaldo (1906 – 1981)

Harriet Rinaldo is a social worker best known for her work with US Veterans. After receiving a social work degree from Smith College in Massachusetts, she began working for the Social Security Agency before joining the Veterans Administration in DC. She spent over 30 years at the VA, recruiting hundreds of social workers to assist in VA Medical Services expansion following World War II.  

The standards Rinaldo established while at the VA became the guidelines that US governmental agencies and social work organizations used for decades to come. She is also credited for identifying the term “clinical social work” as a specialty standard.  

Rinaldo’s work on social issues show how important it is to focus on those who might otherwise fall to the wayside in their communities. By promoting energy and funding towards Veteran’s assistance, her work became foundational to today’s version of elder care

Towards the Future

As the field of social work continues to evolve, it will undoubtedly have passionate and courageous women at the helm. By celebrating the history of trailblazing women like Jane Addams, Mary Ellen Richmond, Ide B. Wells, Jeanette Rankin, and Harriet Rinaldo, health and human services organizations can continue their legacy. 

Crucial to doing so is ensuring proper case management. The data and information from case management can help social workers make more informed decisions and focus on doing what they do best: helping people. ClientTrack™ is the leading program for case management and can help your organization improve and expand services.  

Images used in this post sourced from Google Images. 


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