Where is Grace Abbott When We Need Her

December, 2015

Lincoln -- With much loose talk these days about refugees and immigrants, it would be good for all of us to take a deep breath and reflect on the life and teachings of Grace Abbott. She is in the Nebraska Hall of Fame as a tireless worker in the cause of protecting refugees and immigrants, especially children. She was born in Grand Island, educated at the University of Nebraska (among other places), worked at the highest levels in the federal government and in many charitable organizations. She died in 1939 and is buried in Grand Island. She was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1976. Her papers, along with those of her sister Edith Abbott, are at the UNL library archives and special collections.

From 1915 to 1917, she headed the Immigrants' Protective League and from 1917 to 1921 worked in the Children's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor. Thereafter she was the chief of the Bureau until 1934. In 1931, Good Housekeeping named her one of the twelve greatest living American women.

Grace Abbott was a Republican, she explained, because that was the party of most civil war veterans' families in Nebraska. Herbert Hoover considered her for nomination to be Secretary of Labor, which would have made her the first woman to be appointed to the cabinet. She had much bipartisan support for the position, but ultimately Hoover declined to nominate her, knowing of her outspokenness without regard for political party considerations. She endorsed Franklin Roosevelt for president in 1932 and went on to assist in writing the children's aid provisions of the Social Security Act of 1935.

Grace Abbott is a person we should remember for her courage in standing up for the defenseless throughout her career and for her political courage, even at the expense of becoming famous as the first woman to head a cabinet department. (Frances Perkins went on to be so honored.)

We should likewise be standing up for defenseless refugees in our own time; it is also incredibly counterproductive geopolitically not to do so.

If you are reading this in the vicinity of the Nebraska state capitol, drop in to pay your respects and gain courage with a visit to the Grace Abbott statue in the Hall of Fame. It's easy to find. If you are at the governor's office (or if you are the governor), exit left, turn right down the hallway, and find Grace Abbott for inspiration.