NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch
(1867 - 1951)
Mary Kingsbury was born in Chestnut Hill, MA, a suburb of Boston. She entered Boston University and graduated with high honors in 1890. She did post-graduate work at Radcliff College and Columbia University. In 1893, she attended the University of Berlin and while living in Berlin met another student named Vladimir G. Simkhovitch to whom she was married in 1899.
While in college she did volunteer work in a teenage girls' club at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, a Black congregation, and at "St. Monica's Home for old colored women." These experiences influenced her later decisions to continue her studies in economics and political science and her choice of a career in settlement work.
Upon her return to the United States, Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch completed one final year of graduate study at Columbia University. During this time she was active in the woman suffrage movement in New York City and in the Social Reform Club, a group that studied and promoted social welfare legislation. In 1897 she accepted a position as head worker of the College Settlement House on New York's Lower East Side; she left in 1898 to work at the Friendly Aid House, also on the East Side, where she remained until 1902.
In 1901 Mary K. Simkhovitch and John Elliot formed the Association of Neighborhood Workers, a forerunner of United Neighborhood Houses of New York. In the same year the Cooperative Social Settlement Society of New York was formed and opened as Greenwich House (GH) in 1902 and Ms. Simkhovitch was its first director. In addition to establishing GH as a non-sectarian settlement house, she meant to break with what she saw as the "lady bountiful" tradition of charitable settlement work by focusing on neighborhood life and becoming part of it.
Greenwich House quickly grew in scope and activity, adding a music school in 1906 and one of the first "infant welfare clinics" in 1916. Theater and pottery workshops were begun, and their products were soon as well known as GH itself. In 1929 GH began a long social work training affiliation with Columbia University; Ms. Simkhovitch had been an adjunct professor of social economics at Barnard College, 1907-10, and associate in the same field at Columbia Teachers College, 1910-13. She was also a lecturer at the New York School of Social Work, 1912-15.
Beginning in 1907 as chairman of the Congestion Committee in New York City, Mary became an active advocate of housing reform, including low cost and public housing. She became a member of the Public Recreation Department of New York City in 1911 and served as chairman of the City Recreation Committee in 1925. She was soon recognized as a national authority on public housing and settlement work and in 1917 was elected president of the National Federation of Settlements. She was also president of the nationally focused Public Housing Conference from about 1931 until 1943. She remained locally active as well, helping to organize the Greenwich Village Action Committee (circa. 1944-45) and the Greenwich Village Association (1946-47).
In the 1930s and 1940s Ms. Simkhovitch served on several state boards that directed policy on housing and other social welfare issues with which she was concerned. These included the New York State Board of Welfare (1929-1943), for which she also served as chair
of the Committee on Housing, and the New York State Board of Health (1929-1944). Her most extensive involvement was with the New York City Housing Authority. She was its first vice-chairman from 1934 until 1948. In 1937 she made an unsuccessful bid for election to the New York City Council. During this period she was also active in the National Urban League.
Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch was influential in most of the great reforms of her day: the opening of public schools as social centers, National Aid for Public Education, widow's pensions, nursery schools, child care centers, woman's suffrage, housing, dock conditions and old age poverty.
Ms. Simkhovitch was a popular speaker on such topics as settlement work, housing, recreation, and woman's suffrage, and she published articles on housing, education, and her work at GH. She also published several books, including The City Worker's World (1917), Neighborhood: My Story of Greenwich House (1938), Group Life (1940), and Here Is God's Plenty (1942).
Mary K. Simkhovitch was a member of the American Association of Social Workers and she received honorary degrees from New York University, Columbia University, Boston University, Smith College and Colby College. Among her friends were Jane Addams, Amelia Earhart, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, Frances Perkins, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and Dr. John Dewey.