Celebrating Women’s Contributions to Social Work

By Guest Writer - March 12, 2024

Ida B. Wells is known as one of the founders of the social work profession in the US.
Ida B. Wells is known as one of the founders of the social work profession in the U.S.

From the early pioneers who fought for women’s rights to the contemporary leaders breaking barriers and challenging systemic inequalities, the contributions of women in social work have left an enduring mark on society. As we celebrate Women’s History and Social Work Appreciation month, we explore the rich history of a few women in social work and how they have shaped the profession.

The core of social work is to enhance the well-being of all people, with a focus on social justice and empowering people to meet their needs and their communities’ needs. Social workers support fields such as mental health, community organizations, health care, child and older adult welfare, government, schools and research.

Ida B. Wells and Jane Addams are known as founders of the social work profession in the United States. Wells was a journalist and activist who fled Memphis, Tennessee following numerous threats in response to her anti-lynching publication and advocacy. She moved to Chicago where she met Addams. They advocated on behalf of Chicago’s immigrant populations, the labor movement, public health and women’s rights.

Jane Addams speaks to visitors to the Hull House in 1935.
Jane Addams speaks to visitors to the Hull House in 1935.

Wells had been born into slavery and Addams into affluence. Together they debated and influenced each other’s advocacy, were among the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and inspired a profession rooted in promoting social justice and equity.

Barbara Mikulski was a social worker prior to being elected to the U.S. House and later the Senate, serving in Congress from 1977-2017. She became the longest serving female senator and longest serving woman of Congress. She advocated for women with a particular focus on health care, helping to pass laws to improve women’s access to health care and inclusion in medical research. These include the 1990 Women’s Health Equity Act, the 1993 NIH Revitalization Act and the 2009 Women’s Health Amendment to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. 

In 1978, Rep. Barbara Mikulski explains legislation to help battered women.
In 1978, Rep. Barbara Mikulski explains legislation to help battered women.

She worked to help pass the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program Reauthorization Act in 2007, which provides cancer screenings for low-income women with the goal of diagnosing cancer earlier while it is still treatable. Mikulski also helped establish Women’s History Month. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and inducted to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2015.

Eucharia Borden is a trailblazer in health equity within cancer support services.
Eucharia Borden is a trailblazer in health equity within cancer support services.

Eucharia Borden, vice president of Programs and Health Equity at Family Reach, is a trailblazer in health equity within cancer support services. Borden was past president of the Association of Oncology Social Work and has served as vice president of Health Equity at the Cancer Support Community. She has earned national recognition, including media features alongside prominent advocates like Sterling K. Brown.

She brings a profound understanding of the challenges and disparities faced by cancer patients. Her leadership and advocacy have helped ensure that the principles of equity and inclusivity remain at the forefront of cancer care. Her work underscores the importance of addressing systemic barriers to ensure that all individuals, regardless of background or circumstance, receive the support and resources they need to navigate their cancer journey with dignity and resilience.

Today’s social workers are continuing the work of these transformative pioneers, amplifying marginalized voices and striving for a more just and inclusive society. The role of oncology social work extends beyond the confines of medical treatment, offering emotional, social and practical support to patients and their loved ones. Social workers at Moffitt Cancer Center serve as compassionate guides during moments of uncertainty and the whirlwind of emotions following a cancer diagnosis —  offering a lifeline of hope, compassion and empowerment.

Written by social workers Viviana Bermudez, LCSW, Amy Burke, LCSW, OSW-C and Melissa Rice, MSW

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