1815: Eliza Burkans Farnham born (November 17, 1815 – December 15, 1864) was a 19th-century American novelist, feminist, abolitionist, and activist for prison reform

  • In 1836 Eliza Burhans moved with a brother to Illinois. Later that year, she married Thomas Jefferson Farnham, a lawyer and writer of travel books. For the next five years the couple lived on the Illinois prairie. They had three children, only one of whom survived childhood.
  • Drawing on her experiences, Farnham later wrote Life in Prairie Land (1846), an enormously popular travel and nature book and account of the life of a frontier housewife.
  • In 1844 Farnham took a job as matron of the female division at Sing Sing state prison. There she instituted penological reforms, emphasizing improvements in the living environment and kind treatment of prisoners.
  • She edited and illustrated Marmaduke Blake Sampson’s Rationale of Crime and Its Appropriate Treatment (1846). In 1848, following a conflict with opponents of her reform program, she left Sing Sing and moved to Boston, where she worked briefly with reformer Samuel Gridley Howe at the New England Asylum for the Blind (now the Perkins Institute).
  • In her most important intellectual achievement, Woman and Her Era (2 vols., 1864), Farnham expressed–as, indeed, she lived–many of the contradictions of her era. In it she argued that motherhood was the biological basis for women’s superiority and that women, therefore, should aim not for civil equality with men, but for a “higher” standard. For this reason she opposed woman’s rights advocates whose goal was political equality with men, yet she welcomed the opportunity in 1858 to speak at the National Woman’s Rights Convention about her theory of female superiority. Woman and Her Era also demonstrated the impact of free thought (deism) on Farnham–further distinguishing her from her churchly contemporaries–for it pronounced science to be “Objective Truth” and scorned such “Arbitrary systems” as religion (vol. 1, p. 19). Not easily classified as an enemy of the emerging feminist cause, Farnham considered herself “a sympathetic, yet dissenting spectator” and, in spite of her philosophical and tactical differences with leading activists, expressed gratitude for the “pioneer struggles whose fruits we are now enjoying in the partial emancipation of Women” (Woman and Her Era, vol. 1, p. v.). Her views also presaged the late nineteenth-century feminist conviction that woman’s achievement and use of political rights would “purify” civil society.
  • Farnham’s life ended before she could witness either the schisms in or many of the successes of the woman’s movement. During the Civil War she worked with the Women’s Loyal National League and joined with abolitionists who sought to convince Abraham Lincoln to end slavery. In 1863 she went to nurse the wounded at Gettysburg, where she contracted tuberculosis. She returned to New York City, where she died. She was buried at Milton-on-Hudson, New York.

1870: Winifred Holt (November 17, 1870 in New York – June 14, 1945 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts) reformer and educator, working for the blind; daughter of publisher Henry Holt

  • In 1905, the sisters founded The Lighthouse, which was merged into the New York Association for the Blind in 1906, an organization which is today known as Lighthouse International. The Holt sisters founded The Lighthouse in 1905 at their home in New York City. The Lighthouse was incorporated in 1906 as the New York Association for the Blind.
  • After World War I, Winifred Holt founded Lighthouses in Europe for the rehabilitation of blinded war veterans. She was awarded the Legion of Honor from France and received international and national recognition for her work to aid blind people. Winifred was awarded the French Legion of Honor.
  • Winifred Holt created the bronze relief profile of Helen Keller in 1907. When Helen Keller touched it, she was so pleased that she wrote her signature with a tool in the clay. The signature appears on the bronze cast.

1878: Grace Abbott (Nov. 17, 1878 – June 19, 1939, social worker)

  • Grace Abbott was a well-known American social reformer, teacher, and writer during the first half of the twentieth century. Abbott was born in Grand Island, Nebraska on November 17, 1878. Grace Abbott is the sister of Edith Abbott, who is also a well-know social reformer. Both sisters were influenced by their mother’s avid belief in equal rights for women (Lengermann& Niebrugge-Brantly 1998). This gives obvious reasoning to the fact that both sisters made a tremendous impact on social welfare, during this time period when social living was not at it’s highest standards.
  • Concerned about the welfare of children and infants, particularly the low pay and long hours required of children working in factories, Abbott became a leader in the fight for federal legislation protecting children’s rights. In 1917, she became the director of the Industrial Division of the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor. This position made her responsible for developing enforcement plans for the first federal child labor law passed by Congress in 1916. After being given proper authority, Abbott directed an investigation of a majority of the shipbuilding plants on the Atlantic coast, Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes. This inspection was performed in 1919.
  • Her concern for the welfare of children also enabled her to get the Sheppard-Towner Act passed into law. This act allowed for federal and state aid for mothers and children. This law provided the first federal grants to aid the social welfare of children. This law also authorized government cooperation with the states in promoting maternal and child health. In 1921 President Warren Harding appointed Abbott as head of the Children’s Bureau in the Department of Labor. As head of the Bureau, Abbott administered the Sheppard-Towner Act provisions. She continued as head of the Bureau until 1934 when she resigned and became a public welfare professor at the University of Chicago.
  • Abbott’s concern for child welfare inspired her to write a book entitled Child and the State. This book, written by Abbott herself, concentrates on dependent children and the aid the state is liable to pay. Not only does it look at what the state was currently responsible for, but also how they can more adequately meet the needs of dependant children.
  • Another important aspect the book covers is state aid to single mothers’ of dependant children. Abbott states the fact that aid should be provided for low-income women with children. She believed that with proper financial aid, women would be more likely to raise and educate their children (Abbott, 1938).
  • Abbott was also responsible for including social statistics and research into legislative policy- making. Her leadership helped fund more than one hundred social research investigations and publications, usually administered by the School of Social Service Administration. Some of the important research includes: “Maternal Morality in 15 States”, ” Children in Agriculture”, ” Children in Street Work”‘ ” Illegally Employed Minors and Workmen’s Compensation”‘ and ” Youth and Crime”.
  • Another accomplishment achieved by Abbott was the development of systems for collecting data from the state child labor, juvenile delinquency, and statistics on the work of local private and public agencies. In 1920 Abbott responded to the depression by advocating for federal aid for relief, and was responsible for collecting and distributing relief reports from 203 cities, to national agencies.
  • From 1922 to 1934, Grace Abbott served as the official representative of the U.S. on the League of Nations’ advisory committee on child welfare. She was the President of the National Conference of Social Work in Paris. This was the first conference on social work ever held. From 1930 to 1931, Abbott established wide spread support for the position as Secretary of Labor in the President’s cabinet and in 1931 she was named one of the “Twelve Greatest Living American Women” in a nation wide poll conducted by a popular women’s magazine.
  • In 1934, Grace Abbott resigned as chief of the Children’s Bureau. Upon her resignation, Franklin D. Roosevelt portrayed her career as one of “inestimable value to the children, the mothers, and the fathers of the country, as well as to the Federal and State governments.”
  • From 1934 until her death, Abbott remained active in the field of social work. She held a professorship at SSA and was the editor of the Social Service Review. During these years Abbott also served on President Roosevelt’s council on economic security and helped to draft the Social Security Act. She also continued to chair international labor conferences and state committees dealing with the issue of child labor.
  • On June 19, 1939, Grace Abbott died in Chicago (Kirkland, 1989). For thirty years Abbott fought for child labor, juvenile delinquency, and for the immigrants in our country. Abbott had been named one of America’s Most distinguished Women by Good Housekeeping in 1931. Also a children’s playground park in Grand Island was named in the honor of Grace Abbott. Abbott was also voted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1976.


Quote for Today

“The ultimate aim of the human mind, in all its efforts, is to become acquainted with Truth.”

Eliza Farnham

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