- The Social Worker’s License:Reconstructing Social Selves in the Work of Jessie Taft and Charlotte Perkins Gilman
In the summer of 1913, Jessie Taft assumed the assistant superintendentship of the New York State Reformatory for Women. The PhD in philosophy that she had received from the University of Chicago that June offered little in the way of practical preparation for the trials of the position, where duties as a behavioral counselor required that she often play the role of warden to the court-appointed inmates. That spring she had been soaking up the wisdom and praise of her advisor, the pragmatist philosopher George Herbert Mead; by the end of the summer, she could handcuff a recalcitrant inmate with ease. Taft’s tenure at the reformatory lasted just two years, but it marked the beginning of a long and distinguished career in social work. Taft published extensively on topics related to her practice and was recognized as an authority on adoption. She established herself as the intellectual leader of the functional school of social work, to which she introduced and interpreted the thought of the psychoanalyst Otto Rank, whom she befriended in 1924.1 In 1934, Taft secured a position on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania’s School for Social Work, where she taught until she retired.2
Taft, who died in 1960, has left a double legacy as a pioneer of feminist pragmatism and an innovative social work professional. For the most part, though, her life, her work, and her contributions to pragmatism have remained hidden, even as scholars have periodically attempted to recognize her achievements [End Page 1] as both a philosopher and a social worker. Highlighting the importance of Taft’s philosophical writing, Charlene Haddock Seigfried, Rosalind Rosenberg, and James Livingston recover Taft as an early leader in feminist pragmatism.3 Taft figures prominently in John Ehrenreich’s history of social work, as well as in Ellen Herman’s recent history of adoption in America.4 Among scholars who treat Taft, Herman alone indicates the continuity between her philosophical training and social work practice.5 Yet the pragmatist underpinnings of Taft’s social work call for closer analysis than it is Herman’s purpose to give them.
An examination of the continuity between Taft’s academic training and her social work prompts a more capacious understanding of what it means to be a pragmatist intellectual by showing how, in fact, social work constitutes a mode of pragmatist thought. As Taft’s pragmatism demonstrates, there are more forms of intellectual production than writing alone. If we take a sola scriptura view of pragmatism, Taft and other feminist pragmatists like Elsie Ripley Clapp, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, and, crucially, Charlotte Perkins Gilman remain, unjustly, on the periphery of classical pragmatism’s mainly male (and textual) pantheon, which is composed largely if not exclusively of professional academics familiar to scholars of modernism. (While Jane Addams belongs among this group, it is because of her writings and not because of her social work.) In their recovery projects on pragmatist feminism, scholars like Seigfried and Jane S. Upin rightly highlight texts and authors excluded from pragmatism’s male canon.
Yet even as their efforts expand the roster of recognized pragmatists, Seigfried and Upin nonetheless rely on a textual and authorial concept of canonicity that affronts a key tenet of pragmatism: that action too is a form of intellectual labor. A pragmatist canon is thus a self-contradictory notion. On its own terms, pragmatism would include in its canon the ghostly presences of the often irrecoverable intellectual labors of social action; its intellectual history would consist both of written work and of the actions of thinkers who through personal choice or because of historical exclusion pursued careers outside of professional academia as activists, secondary educators, and social workers. By raising the status of nonacademic intellectual engagement and action within pragmatism’s history and taking at face value its insight that intelligence acts within a social world, we make more available for consideration thinkers whose primary medium was not textual but social and material. As a reassessment of the didactic fiction that Gilman published in her magazine the Forerunner shows...