Women in Social Work who Have Changed the World

One of my winter break reads (yes, the reviews are still trickling out, folks…) was the most recent book edited by my undergraduate advisor and very good friend (and blog reader!) Alice Lieberman. You should pick it up; I read it in just a few hours, as it’s really a collection of interviews with phenomenal women social workers around the world who have done (and are doing) amazing work.

Because it’s such an easy read, and because I know that you’re all looking for some more good books to add to your reading lists, at my suggestion, I’m just going to relate to the stories, in aggregate, in a couple of very personal ways. Besides, really, choosing just one of two to include here would be too difficult. Um, an ambassador? U.S. Senator? Iranian social worker who faced down a firing squad? One of the 100 most influential Hispanics in the country? And two nuns? You know how I feel about nuns…

On only about the third page of the book, still in the introduction, I had one of those lightbulb moments. I was really not aware, at all, of the literature about the powerful role that fathers, in particular, play in their daughters’ social and emotional development. That particular influence runs through many of the stories in the book, and it really hit a chord with me. In many of these cases, it’s obvious why supportive fathers are so important: in much of the developing world, without strong advocacy from the father, girls have very little access to education.

But that wasn’t the case for me, certainly, and yet I can think of no single greater influence in my decision to use my life to serve others, than my father. I thought of him a lot throughout the whole book. In an interview from Pakistan, an advocate speaks of seeing her mother berate a group of men who had just kicked a widow out of her house, and I thought of my Dad forcing a car off the road so that he could get out and drive the drunk (and unknown to us) man home. My favorite story in the book is in the chapter on Sister Jean Abbott, with whom I had the great honor to work some while I was in St. Louis. She speaks of her sister getting so excited when a man asked for a drink of water, because she thought this was her big chance to do what her father wanted: give someone more than what he/she had asked for. The man was quite taken aback with the huge breakfast her sister offered. It reminded me of my favorite story of my sister who, when asked to draw a picture of Jesus in Sunday School, drew him with a bald head and glasses. I don’t have to tell you what my Dad looks like.

The other very personal thing for me in this book was the realization that very few of the women profiled have children and partners, and some of those who do are either estranged from their families or acknowledge that they missed much of their children’s lives. I love my kids fiercely, and I gain tremendous joy from mothering them every day. Yet I am also very conscious of the opportunity cost of this intensive parenting–the more that I give to my kids, the less I have to give to others. I’m certainly not saying that I would have become an ambassador or an Ashoka fellow or anything, had I not chosen parenting, but I do wonder about that other path, sometimes. Having decided to have kids, I have very strong feelings about the role that I want to play in their lives, and yet I know what I’m not doing, then, as a result. And, of course, it made me think about how you’d likely never see those stories in a book about outstanding men and their contributions, and about how moms are the ones expected to straddle both worlds.

And it was also moving for me to see how many of the women spoke of Eleanor Roosevelt as an inspiration for their work. My daughter is named after her and has a framed picture of the former First Lady on her dresser. It is my sincere hope that my daughter grows up with some of the same compassion and wisdom and moral courage evidenced by her namesake and, apparently, many of those who seek to emulate her.

Less personal, but still powerful, was the very obvious interweaving of clinical and social change orientations in virtually all of the profiles in the book. I feel very strongly that bridging across this false divide is essential for the future of our profession and, I believe, key to our likelihood of success in grappling with the world’s problems, too. As woman after woman stated, it is when we bring our excellent people skills together with a macro-systems perspective and an unflinching commitment to social justice that we become truly powerful forces for change. Nearly all of the women took a more macro approach in school, and certainly in their practice, but they value their clinical experience and clinical tools, as well.

And, finally, my favorite quotes, which honestly reminded me of several of you!
“a dislike for injustice was one of her principal traits” (p. 113)
“it is difficult to say whether (she) chose social work or social work chose her” (p. 41)
And, in a quote of St. Francis of Assisi, “preach and, if necessary, use words” (p. 125)

What women in social work particularly inspire you? Or do you have your own story to tell about a parent’s influence, or the cost of family responsibilities, or being a woman in this “female” profession?

3 responses to “Women in Social Work who Have Changed the World

  1. A shout-out from Melinda Lewis feels like no review from anyone else has ever felt. Seriously, thank you. It means so much!

    I did not know you worked with Sister Jean. Can you believe the personal risks she took, staying after her visa expired in Nicaragua? Getting that young girl out of the country? Ai yi yi. One of these days I’m going to go to St. Louis and meet her.


    • The crazy thing is that I really don’t think I new that much about Sister Jean’s story, so it was so fun to read more about it. Amazing. She was so inspiring to me when I was starting the Spanish-language crisis line, though, and all of us who worked around her were in awe of her rapport and skills. It was such a feel-good book, because it really highlighted that these are social work women who have made a decision to be phenomenal, which inspires the rest of us to phenomenality! 🙂

      • Melinda Lewis

        Um, so obviously that’s “knew that much”…maybe these late nights working and long days mothering are startign to get to me!

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