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Social Workers Have Led the Way in Formulating and Implementing Public Policy
By Miriam Edelman

Jeannette Rankin, Frances Perkins, Dorothy Height, Karen Bass, and Wendy Sherman are shining examples of the potential of social workers for profound contributions to the formulation and implementation of public policy at state, federal, and global levels.

Building on her experience as a social worker, Rankin became a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. She was instrumental in making Montana the tenth state to grant the right to vote to women. Her work there, which included her being the first female to speak to the state legislature, revived the inactive suffrage movement in the state. Running on a platform supporting “nationwide suffrage, child welfare legislation, and the prohibition of alcohol,” she became the first woman elected to the United States Congress in 1914, several years before women gained the right to vote throughout the United States via the 19th Amendment. Her first Congressional bill, H.J. Res. 3, the Susan B. Anthony amendment, sought to grant women the right to vote nationwide. Believing firmly in the possibility of resolving differences without violence, Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against entry to both World Wars I and II. While other members of Congress voted against entering World War I, only Rankin voted against entry in World War II.

Perkins’ experience as a social worker at settlement houses led her to ground-breaking public policy roles in major positions in the New York State and federal governments. She was the New York State Industrial Commission’s first female member. As secretary of labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Perkins was the first female Cabinet secretary and the first female in the presidential line of succession. She is credited with being the main architect of several New Deal social programs, and her legacy includes Social Security, the 40-hour work week, minimum wage, and the end of child work. The US Department of Labor’s headquarters is the Frances Perkins Building.

Height began her career as a case worker with the New York City Welfare Department, learning the importance of social justice for her clients and the community. Throughout her life, she was a leader in struggles for equal rights for Black Americans and women. Credited as the “Godmother of the Civil Rights Movement,” she was the only woman at the movement’s highest level. As President of the National Council of Negro Women during the movement’s most critical years, she created social programs to improve the lives of Black Americans in the South. She’s recognized as being the first person in the Civil Rights movement to merge the historically separate issues of equality for women and equality for Black Americans. Height was one of the top organizers of the March on Washington in 1963 and represented the only women’s organization to be acknowledged there. Her importance in the Civil Rights Movement caused her to advise major political figures of both parties (including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson). Height’s honors include the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom (1994) and the Congressional Gold Medal (2004).

Bass, serving as Mayor of Los Angeles since 2022, is a social worker and former physician’s assistant. She has been a leader at the state, federal, and now city level.  She became the first Black woman to lead a state legislative chamber in US history when she was Speaker of the California State Assembly. She focused on reforming the United States’ foster care system and improving the relationship between the United States and Africa. In her first term in Congress, she founded the bipartisan Congressional Chair on Foster Youth. While serving in Congress, Bass became the first woman to be elected Mayor of Los Angeles. In 2020, she was under consideration to be the running mate for Vice President Joe Biden. While a member of Congress, Bass decided to pursue a master’s degree in social work  to be better able to improve the child welfare system. 

After having early career in community mental health (including having been Maryland’s Director of  the Office of Child Welfare), Sherman held leading foreign policy roles in three presidential administrations. She became the first female deputy secretary of state in 2021. She was the Biden Administration’s default diplomat for “hard conversations in hard places” and the State Department’s “point person on China policy.” She previously performed leadership roles in foreign policy in the Clinton and Obama Administrations. During the latter, she was the lead US negotiator in nuclear deal talks with Iran. Sherman credits her social work and community organizing background in leading these talks to success. Sherman also worked on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and discussions with North Korea. She is credited with assisting in improving relationships between South Korea and Japan, worked for the US Congress and the Democratic National Committee, and was the executive director of Emily’s List, which seeks to elect prochoice Democratic women. Sherman credits her social work skills as being “critical to making a difference in the world.”

Social workers should look to these and other examples and be encouraged to continue to take part in the formulation and implementation of beneficial public policy at every level inside and outside of government.

— Miriam Edelman is a policy professional in Washington, D.C. She interned/worked for the US Congress (US Senate and the US House of Representatives) for about five years.