Mapping Science & Reform: The First Generation of Chicago-Trained Female Social Scientists, Part III

This is part of a special series of posts on the digital history of psychology from members of the PsyBorgs Lab at York University, in Toronto, Canada. The full series of posts can be found here.

Read Mapping Science & Reform: The First Generation of Chicago-Trained Female Social Scientists: Part I, here & Part II, here.

Conclusion: reform movement & research discussion

Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge, eminent social sciences educator in Chicago
Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge, PhD 1901

Along with those in the social services, much of the work done by individuals identified in the previous post as employed in academia can also be classified as fitting within the reform movement: Matilde Castro was director of the Phebe Anna Thorne Open-Air Model preparatory school at Bryn Mawr; in Chicago, Sophonisba Preston Breckenridge, with her 1913 entry reporting the official position “Assistant Dean of Women,” at the University, was also heading research for the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy; Edith Abbott is listed in this year as its Associate Director.

Here again we confront the fact that there are significant limitations to, as well as advantages of, sticking exclusively to the alumni directories in our analyses.    A priority for this project was to explore the possibilities and test the viability of employing primary sources like the directories in collective biography—and while they allowed for a level of precision, they also left our analysis vulnerable to the vagaries of those editors who originally organized the information. The organizational changes made in the 1919 directory render it a considerably less ‘rich’ source than the previous two. Unlike them, it did not organize alumni by their disciplines, or even include the students’ departments in their listings, but instead simply arranged the entire school alphabetically. This factor prevented us from being able to include a third, post-1913 generation in our prosopographical analysis as we could not ascertain from the directory alone who was a social scientist. It also confounded implicit expectations that the information provided would get better over time as the school became better established.

But even taken together as a set, the arbitrariness of the selected years and content can potentially create a historical picture that is inaccurate or misleading, and the integration of information from other sources is necessary for prosopographical purposes. To illustrate, we know from external sources that Breckinridge and Abbott would go on to spearhead the merger of the School of Civics and Philanthropy with the University to become its School of Social Service Administration (Davis, 1984; Muncy, 1991). While the directories can provide an unparalleled opportunity to track the early careers of this cohort, they function best in conjunction with biographical sources to more thoroughly map out the professional trajectories as they developed over a longer period of time. The Breckinridge-Abbott partnership would become highly influential; it can be fairly stated that the many collaborative endeavours over their extensive careers helped lay the theoretical and methodological foundations for the social work industry as it would come to be practiced (Muncy, 1991). Another, lesser known example of a reform oriented career that develops after our alumni directory timeline is that of Elizabeth Laetitia Moon Conard, who after instructing at Grinnell College at the time of the directories, was proactive in Iowa, forming a women’s voting league, advocating for children in poverty, promoting the progressivist party and eventually running for governor on the socialist ticket (Hyman Alonso, 1997).

Similarly, relying exclusively on the directories prevents consideration of what individuals had already accomplished before undertaking their doctoral work, and can also leave out much of the detail of the years between their publications, distorting the interpretation of what was accomplished in that era—take the example of Frances Fenton. She was one of a group of five women who did not list a professional occupation in any of the directories. In 1913, she lists a private address in Gainesville, Florida where she had moved because her husband had procured a position at the University there. Fenton was actually employed as an instructor at Mt. Holyoke before attending Chicago, in 1904-07, and then again after she graduated but before the next directory, in 1910-11, and then once more, coincidentally between the final two directories, in 1916-17 (Higley, 1937).

Katherine Bement Davis, PhD 1900, serving as Corrections Commissioner of NYC
Katherine Bement Davis, PhD 1900, serving as Corrections Commissioner of NYC

Or, we can look again at the work of Katherine Bement Davis, mentioned in the former posts. Before attending Chicago, she had taken part in designing a model working class home for New York State’s display at the Chicago World Fair in 1893 based on the principles of domestic science she’d learned at Vassar, and had become the administrator of a settlement house in Philadelphia (McCarthy, 1997). Between leaving the Bedford Hills reformatory and running the Bureau of Social Hygiene, she had been appointed the first female corrections commissioner of New York City and chaired the committee that gave New York the nation’s first city based parole commission (Ibid.). For our intention to discover to what extent this cohort was active in the reform movement, this level of available detail is a notable loss.

Nonetheless, for the project of establishing a clearer picture of the entire cohort’s involvement, the directories are invaluable. That the majority of our findings from establishing the locations and occupations of our cohort have been largely consistent with the now rather considerable literature on women in the social sciences and social reform during this period is not particularly surprising. This method gives us a manageable method for collecting and displaying information about all of the women, rather than the more active and famous individuals, and allowed us to determine in what ways prosopography and mapping can work together. Because the mapping technology provides us with a method of quickly handling large amounts of data, it will become increasingly useful as we continue to assess larger cohorts, such as a comparative study with the male counterparts to this cohort, a broader swath of female counterparts of this generation from beyond the University of Chicago, and for multiple generations of social scientists across the board. A particularly interesting point of comparison for us will be the pre-WWI cohort with a post-WWI cohort to empirically test and depict the idea that a separate sphere of applied work (at least in psychology) arose for women that funneled even more of them away from academia (Furumoto, 1987).


Full reference list from the Cheiron presentation available by request (leave a comment below with an email address to which it can be forwarded). 


Davis,  A. F. (1984). Spearheads for reform: The social settlements and the progressive movement, 1890-1914. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Furumoto, L. (1987). On the margins: Women and the professionalization of psychology in the United States, 1890-1940. In M. G. Ash & W. R. Woodward (Eds.), Psychology in twentieth century thought and society (pp. 93-113). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Higley, M. (1937). One hundred year biographical directory of Mount Holyoke College 1837-1937, Bulletin Series 30, no. 5. South Hadley, MA: Alumnae Association of Mount Holyoke College.

Hyman Alonso, H. (1997). The women’s peace union and the outlawry of war, 1921-1942. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press

McCarthy, T. C. (1997).  New York City’s Suffragist Commissioner 1914-1915: Correction’s Katharine Bement Davis. New York: Communications Services, Department of Correction.

Muncy, R. (1991). Creating a female dominion in American reform, 1890-1935. New York: Oxford University Press.