Left to Right: Jessie Taft and Virginia Robinson stand outside their home in Flourtown, Pennsylvania, in 1954. (Photo courtesy Roger Taft, SB’65, SM’68); Taft’s 1908 faculty photo from the West Des Moines High School annual. (Photo courtesy Carol Coohey, PhD’93)

Ahead of her time

Jessie Taft, PhB 1905, PhD 1913, was a matriarch of modern social work.

Jessie Taft, PhB 1905, PhD 1913, belonged to a generation of women hindered by a society reluctant to accept them as scholars, thinkers, and public figures. Taft, the precocious daughter of a Des Moines fruit merchant, earned a doctorate in philosophy under the great U of C pragmatist George H. Mead. But no university job awaited her. Reason and intellect, it was thought, belonged properly to men; women should concern themselves with maternal care and domestic virtue.

And so, like many other talented young women of her day, Taft turned to social work—seen as an extension of maternal care and thus open to women—pouring all her energy and intelligence into it. Social work was never the same.

As a psychologist, feminist, writer, and educator, Taft was a prominent Progressive Era reformer who exerted a profound influence on social work in its formative years. She became an authority on child placement and pioneered a therapeutic approach that focused on helping patients solve everyday problems. A tough-minded yet compassionate social worker, she was also a courageous thinker who brought a philosophical and humanistic spirit to a vocation struggling to establish itself as a legitimate profession.

Taft grew up the eldest of three daughters in a comfortable if uninspiring household; her mother’s progressing deafness limited social life at home. She took quickly to books, was always first in her classes, and learned to play and love the piano. She also worried about her weight, suffered crushes on a trolley driver and her principal, and sampled local churches before settling on the Unitarians. Her biographer and lifelong companion, Virginia Robinson, wrote that, “in retrospect, adolescence flattened out into a long desert waste marked by evenings of boredom spent on the porch in the intense heat of an Iowa summer.”

After high school Taft studied at Drake University in her hometown, earning a bachelor’s in 1904. Then she spent a year at the University of Chicago, where she earned a degree in philosophy and psychology. But she felt guilty about leaving home and returned to teach Latin, mathematics, and German at West Des Moines High School.

Her life changed dramatically in the summer of 1908, when she returned to the University to work on a doctorate. She moved into a house belonging to James Tufts, a professor of philosophy and one of the founders of the Chicago school of pragmatism. Among her housemates that summer was Robinson, who herself went on to a distinguished career as a social worker and educator. The two became fast friends. They reveled in the intellectual excitement of a busy campus, an excitement heightened, Robinson wrote, by the presence of “crowds and crowds of people of every type and nationality eager to grasp a little knowledge, school teachers from rural districts, country preachers intent on getting a modern idea or two.”

Passionate, long-term partnerships were common among professional women in the early decades of the 20th century. Robinson, a year younger than Taft, had grown up in Louisville and earned a bachelor’s and a master’s at Bryn Mawr, and later a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. She described Taft as “large and ungainly, and Western but with the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen. There is no escaping the appeal of her good, straightforward common sense and understanding of things.” Taft also possessed other qualities that would later help her succeed in social work: “She is so frank and sincere and free from conventionality that she compels you to a like frankness, and you find yourself telling her things in the most natural, matter-of-course manner.”

Taft wrote her dissertation under the heavy influence of pragmatists such as Meade, William James, and John Dewey. Titled The Woman Movement from the Point of View of Social Consciousness, the dissertation was Taft’s attempt “to establish for herself her worth as a woman in the world of men,” Robinson wrote. It reads as a deeply felt examination of the predicament of American women at the dawn of the 20th century, which Taft described as “a peculiarly unhappy position” that offered women a “sorry choice of a limited sex and maternal expression or a doubtful and hazardous attempt on the economic side.” Mary Jo Deegan, PhD’75, a feminist scholar at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, calls Taft’s dissertation “the best testament of feminist pragmatism that’s ever been written.”

In the summer of 1912, Taft put her dissertation on hold to pursue real-world experience; she and Robinson were recruited as investigators to interview inmates at the New York State Reformatory for Women. After the summer she returned to Chicago to finish her degree, then returned to work at the reformatory. Neither experience nor education had prepared Taft for prison work, Robinson wrote. Nonetheless, she “accepted the function of assistant superintendent without rebellion.” She learned to respect the rules and regulations critical to prison life. After handcuffing a young woman who had “smashed out” and accompanying her to solitary confinement, she visited the woman each day to try to help her with her problems. Years later one inmate wrote to Taft, “You were very kind to me in my unruly childishness, and above all you never lied to me, so you have always remained in my memory.”

Two years later she joined the State Charities Aid Association of New York as director of the Association’s Social Service Department. Her work involved speaking at institutions and community gatherings about “mental hygiene,” now more commonly called mental health. It was an emerging field, and Taft was excited for the opportunity to promote what she called “a new philosophy of life.” Some of her talks were published under titles like “Is There Anything the Matter with Your Child’s Mind?” and “Fortifying the Child Against Mental Disease.”

Taft also worked as a social worker once a week at the Cornell Clinic of Psychopathology, the first mental-hygiene clinic in New York City. There she grappled with the need to help patients when contemporary psychiatry offered little but a diagnosis. Sometimes she visited patients in their homes because, as she wrote, “it is impossible for the patient to be abandoned.” She took one girl, who was diagnosed with dementia and refused to talk, on walks until the girl finally began communicating with her. The girl later married and kept in touch with Taft, sending her letters and Christmas gifts. Taft brought a suicidal girl out of her depression and helped arrange for her to go to college. Her work at Cornell led her to conclude that a change of environment and not just individual treatment might help children. So she established a small experimental school, called the Farm School, in New Jersey, close to New York City. The school operated until its consulting psychiatrist was called away to serve in the Great War. “There was one thing we found out,” she wrote in a report, “and that was that it is not as difficult as we thought to change children.”

In 1918 Robinson took a job in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania School of Social Work, whose staff had been reduced by the war. Taft followed, becoming head of the Seybert Institution’s Department of Child Study, where she was in charge of children kept in temporary shelter while waiting for the Children’s Bureau of Philadelphia to place them in foster homes. To this work she brought not only an expertise in psychological testing but also experience in understanding troubled children and in promoting mental hygiene. One of her first acts was to start a school. Although the school closed after a year—it proved too difficult to operate with a constantly shifting population—it taught her valuable lessons. “If we had been impressed by anything in our year’s experience, it is this: how little anyone really knows about children; how seldom we stop to see them as they are, rather than as objects to be changed by us into something easier to manage; and how pitifully easy it is in the majority of cases to get immediate response and magical transformations as soon as a little understanding and encouragement is provided.”

After the school closed, she devoted herself to developing the mental hygiene service of the Children’s Bureau. She trained and supervised mental-health workers and oversaw every aspect of work with troubled children. She also wrote for professional journals and popular magazines, spoke at conferences and other gatherings, and consulted with social-work agencies that wrote to her for advice. She was increasingly a national authority on social work, especially on the care and placement of children.

During this time, child placement became more than a professional issue for Taft. In 1921, through a social-work contact in New York, she and Robinson adopted a foster child, an eight-year-old boy named Everett, who was still in touch with his father. A year later they took in a five-year-old girl named Martha, who also had existing family connections. Eventually they adopted the children. “We feel very much like a family and some times wonder whether we are going to live through it,” she wrote in 1923. It was not uncommon then for lesbian couples, especially social workers, to adopt children. In Flourtown, Pennsylvania, where Taft and Robinson lived, they were part of what has been described as a “close-knit community of like-minded women” who lived near each other, spent meals and holidays together, and supported one another. But adoption brought its own troubles. When he was a junior in high school, Everett ran away to live with his paternal grandmother in Kansas. One of his children, Frances Taft Plunkett, AB’62, says Everett respected the women who raised him but “wasn’t particularly interested” in them: “Jessie and Virginia were just folks who had adopted him.”

As powerfully as Taft believed in the value of social work, she anguished over its inadequate methods. By the mid-’20s it had become clear to her that existing approaches to helping children were insufficient, in part because they focused too much on testing. She felt a “deep awareness of being stopped in professional development,” she wrote later. “I knew that I had not the basis for helping people, however deep my desire.”

In 1926 she met a man who revived her hopes. Otto Rank, a Viennese psychoanalyst, had broken with Freud and so became a pariah among American psychoanalysts. Taft turned into his greatest champion. Her desire to help the mentally troubled, joined with Rank’s ideas about human psychology—he believed, for instance, that the birth trauma could lead to adult anxiety and that human will guided personality development—changed her thinking about social work. Much of the change came from her experience undergoing psychoanalysis with Rank, who practiced what he called “here-and-now” therapy. “It took only two weeks,” Taft wrote, “for me to yield to a new kind of relationship, in the experiencing of which the nature of my own therapeutic failures became suddenly clear.”

Taft became the leading theorist of the “functional” school of social work, contrasted with the Freud-inspired “diagnostic” social work, which focused on diagnosing mental illness and tracing it to its sources. The functional school was pragmatic. It allowed patients to identify their own problems. It aspired to equality between therapist and client. Most of all, it considered the therapist-client relationship the key to improving mental health. Yet the diagnostic school dominated the field, and social workers trained at the University of Pennsylvania—the largest school advocating the functional approach—had trouble finding work in agencies allied with the diagnostic school.

Taft began teaching extension courses at the Pennsylvania School of Social Work in 1919; in 1934, more than two decades after receiving her doctorate, she became a professor there, and the school became affiliated with Penn a year later. She retired in 1952, after helping to make the school a center of functional social work. In addition to teaching, she edited several issues of the school’s journal of social work, contributing essays that laid out the principles of functional social work. She died in 1960.

Today Taft is little remembered, even within her field. But she is deeply admired by those familiar with her life and work. “What comes through is a woman of strength, smarts, compassion, integrity, devotion, and humility, along with intolerance for trivia, hucksters, bigots,” says E. James Lieberman, a biographer of Rank who knew several of Taft’s former students in the 1970s.

Taft played an important, if neglected, part in Progressive Era reforms as a feminist, social worker, and thinker. She is perhaps best known as Rank’s translator and biographer. And yet more important were the books, articles, speeches, and teaching that helped lay the theoretical foundations of social work as it struggled for professional recognition. Some of her ideas, such as the importance of the therapeutic relationship, have become an established part of social-work practice and research. “She was ahead of her time in thinking about that,” says Martha Morrison Dore, PhD’86, a research associate at Harvard’s Department of Psychiatry.

At the same time, Dore and other critics say social work has strayed from the path that Taft blazed. The drive toward specialization and scientific legitimacy, they argue, has eclipsed the broad, humanistic outlook and reforming spirit that Taft exemplified and that characterized the first generation of social workers. “The work of Jessie Taft is perhaps more important today than it has been at any time in the history of social work education,” writes Rich Furman, professor at the University of Washington, Tacoma. “At its core, social work is a profession rooted in humanistic, progressive values.”

Taft avoided the “sorry choice” she foresaw as a young graduate student. She succeeded in two realms, the male world of reason and inquiry and the maternal world of helping others. Starting out as a philosopher, she found her way into social work and spent her career thinking deeply about what social work could and should do. She also responded to those who needed her with a powerful sense of mission. In a letter to Robinson, she described meeting an old acquaintance who hoped “to make something of herself.”

“I went away feeling very solemn inside and very much under obligation to be the kind of person these people need since I seem to be able to reach them,” Taft wrote. “Don’t laugh at me. It isn’t conceit but a tremendous reverence for this thing that seems to have been given to me.”


Richard Mertens is a freelance writer in Chicago.