Women In Social Work As Changemakers

The social work profession has always had many courageous and bold women leaders doing the “good work” around the world. This essay spotlights just a few of them from the last 100+ years. Not only were these women social work practitioners, but they were also trailblazers paving the way for other women leaders. 

United States 

The social work profession is over 100 years old in the United States and began as part of the Charity Organization Society (COS) and the settlement house movement. The COS began under the leadership of Mary Richmond while the settlement house movement is credited to Jane Addams and the Hull House. In addition to her work in the Hull House, Jane Addams was a leader in the women and immigrant’s rights movements and worked with others in creating national organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She is also a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Both Richmond and Addams are founders and trailblazers of the social work profession in the United States. There are many other women who were also prominent social work leaders; they include Sophonisba Breckinridge, Julia Lathrop, Grace Abbott, Bertha Capen Reynolds, and Thyra Edwards.  Sophonisba Breckinridge, Julia Lathrop, and Grace Abbott were all contemporaries of Jane Addams who focused on international children’s welfare movements, League of Nations human rights committees and international labor trafficking efforts, respectively.  Bertha Capen Reynolds was an advocate for civil rights in the 1940s and is known for her focus on research and policy.  To this day, many social work groups and organizations are named in honor of Bertha Capen Reynolds because of her progressive social work legacy. Last, Thyra Edwards is known for her international scope of social work in the mid-1900s. She engaged in journalistic work, union organizing, and extensive traveling as a women’s advocate and civil rights activist. Like her social work counterparts, Thyra led many organizations and movements on a domestic and international stage because such times demanded socially responsible women leaders like she and others to pick up the torch and confront those persons and systems responsible for the marginalization of groups and communities. 

International Social Work 

Alice Salomon is known for her efforts working against the Third Reich in Germany; her creation of a girls and women’s groups for “social assistance work”, and a dissertation in the late 1800s that focused on unequal pay between men and women.  She also established a two-year social work program and established the German Conference on Schools of Social Work. Eglantyne Jebb (United Kingdom), Sybil Francis (Jamaica), Sattareh Farman Farmaian (Iran), Shirley Gunn (South Africa), and Ellen Khuzwayo (South Africa) are more examples of women social work activists who fought for human rights.  Jebb wrote the 1923 Declaration of the Rights of the Child; Sybil Francis contributed to the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination. Sattareh, Gunn, and Khuzwayo centered their work on Iran and South Africa. Sattareh founded social work in Iran while Gunn and Khuzwayo led anti-apartheid movements in South Africa.  Gunn was later imprisoned for her efforts and Khuzwayo and was one of the first Black South Africans to receive and use a social work degree in South Africa.  

Social Work Women Leaders as Changemakers  

As seen here, the social work profession is known for its fierce and determined women leaders. Many more like them continue to fight for others today as social workers who believe in social justice, human rights, and treating others with dignity and respect. The social work women leaders highlighted in this essay exemplify what leadership is really about — caring for others, taking risks, paving the way and courageously making changes even when it is unpopular to do so. 

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March 31, 2022 at 9:05 am
Candace L Cooper

Thank you so much for sharing this article with us, Dr. Meshelemiah. I truly believe that for us to propel forward in the social work profession, we must pay homage to the trailblazers and civil rights advocates that created the foundation. It saddens me that the same issues that Jane Addams, Bertha Capen Reynolds, and Thyra Edwards advocated for, are still present in our profession. It is true that history repeats itself and I hope that the new generation of social workers can truly be the change we wish to see in this world. Thank you for sharing their stories with us and enriching our knowledge, which in return, provides the fuel that we need in this profession.


Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.