Health Professions

Medical Social Work

The profession of social work evolved directly from the work of charity organizations and the engagement of the settlement movement in immigrant and working class neighborhoods in the latter years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. Women played a significant role in the evolution of the field, not only as providers of services, but also as founders and managers of welfare agencies, shapers of education, and movers of social policies in the public arena.

Social work provided a socially acceptable path for women in the first decades of the 20th century to pursue educational opportunities, employment positions, and managerial responsibility. Social work fell within the sphere of “women’s work” and the social issues it addressed were seen as extensions of the natural, domestic concerns of women.

Social work in St. Louis was shaped by the efforts of women such as Julia Stimson, Rachel Stix Michael, and Charlotte Rumbold. Physicians Katherine Bain and Martha M. Eliot both made impressive contributions nationally as leaders within the federal Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Other prominent female social workers include Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago and one of the first women to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1933, Frances Perkins, also a settlement worker, was the first woman appointed to the cabinet of a U.S. President. And social worker Jeanette Rankin was the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress (in 1916, before women had the right to vote).

Women have numerically dominated the occupation of social work, comprising between 2/3 and 3/4 of the workforce for several decades. U.S. Census Bureau figures show women comprised 74% of those employed as social workers in 2002. As of 2002, nearly 80% of the members of the National Association of Social Workers were women.

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