NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
Jessie Taft (1882 - 1960)
Jessie Taft was known as a psychologist, sociologist, and a social worker.
She was born June 24, 1882, in Iowa. Her father was in the wholesale business and the family was financially comfortable. As a young girl she was overweight and was made fun of by her classmates as well as her family. In later years in her professional career she referred to her life then in a "case study" in her writings. She earned a bachelor's degree at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Later on she moved to Chicago and earned a bachelor of philosophy degree from the University of Chicago as well as a doctorate degree graduating Magna Cum Laude. There were academic barriers for women during those years and employment was difficult to obtain. At one point she returned to Des Moines, Iowa, and taught Latin and algebra in a high school there.
Through the years she became friends with a number of women sociologists including Virginia Robinson, with whom she lived for more than forty years. After her death in 1960 Robinson edited the book "Jessie Taft: Therapist and Social Work Educator."
Before moving to the Philadelphia area she was an assistant superintendent at the New York State Reformatory for Women and worked for State Charities Association of New York. These positions were obtained through a network of sociology acquaintances. At first she had only marginal faculty appointments with the University of Pennsylvania. However, she became a leader in social work, inspite of not being trained in the field, first in Philadelphia and then nationally.
During this period she became acquainted with Otto Rank, the Viennese psychoanalyst. She entered analysis with him, arranged for his immigration to the United States, as well as his employment at the University of Pennsylvania. It is said that "her theory, practice, and network" shifted because of Otto Rank's teachings.
In 1934 she became the director of the School of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania and was there until her retirement in 1950. Jessie Taft is known for her writings on child placement, an advocate for adoption, and therapeutic adoption. She and Virginia Robinson adopted two children, a boy and a girl. At the time of the adoption of the girl, Taft wrote to a friend "We feel very much like a family, and sometimes wonder whether we are going to live through it." Taft died in 1961, eleven years after retiring.