Jessie Taft (1882-1960)

Source: Jessie Taft Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University

Jessie Taft, Virginia Robinson, and their two adopted children, Everett and Martha, in 1923


Source: Virginia P. Robinson, ed., Jessie Taft: Therapist and Social Work Educator, A Professional Biography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962).

Jessie Taft in 1912 or 1913

Source: Virginia P. Robinson, Jessie Taft: Therapist and Social Work Educator, A Professional Biography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962).

Jessie Taft in 1959

Source: Elsa Ueland Papers, available in David R. Contosta, Philadelphia's Progressive Orphanage: The Carson Valley School (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).

Martha Taft (middle) with Yvonne Patterson (left) and Bobby Ueland (right), early 1920s. Yvonne and Bobby were children adopted by Elsa Ueland and Kate Tucker, another female couple involved in the world of child welfare.

Jessie Taft was a prominent early national authority on child placement, an advocate for adoption professionalization, and a prophet of therapeutic adoption. Born in rural Iowa in 1882, Taft was one of very few American women to pursue doctoral studies in the early twentieth century. She graduated in 1913 from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. in philosophy and a strong taste for social psychology. Because the male-dominated academic world she loved was closed to her, Taft made her way in the more hospitable women's world of social work. For two decades, she worked in child and family services before finally joining the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work in 1934.

Taft's career took her from the New York State Charities Aid Association to the Children's Aid Society of Pennsylvania. She was a leader of the movement to modernize adoption through minimum standards, mental and developmental tests, skilled supervision, and empirical research such as field studies and outcome studies. She knew Sophie van Senden Theis, and Theis encouraged Taft and her life-partner, Virginia Robinson (also an important figure in social work and child welfare), to take the risk of adopting themselves. The couple raised two children together, Everett and Martha, in Flourtown, Pennsylvania, where they belonged to a tight-knit community of like-minded professional women. A number of these friends also adopted children, deliberately bought homes in close proximity, spent holidays together, and provided one another with lifelong mutual aid.

Taft is known today, if she is known at all, as the translator, biographer, and leading American exponent of renegade Viennese psychoanalyst Otto Rank. Taft met him in 1924, entered analysis with him in 1926, and eventually arranged for Rank's immigration to the United States and his employment at the University of Pennsylvania. Taft was largely responsible for Rank's fame in America, but deserves to be remembered for her own remarkable accomplishments. Until her death in 1960, Taft's work was located in between the male world of social science and the female world of help. Psychological sophistication, she believed, was the thread linking objectivity and subjectivity, knowledge and need.

The concepts that guided Taft's thinking about adoption were basic elements of therapeutic culture: personality, adjustment, normal and abnormal. “For the child-placing agency,” Taft pointed out in 1919, “all children are abnormal in the sense that no child is so simple that it is not worth while to become intimately acquainted with his personality.” Children needed scrutiny and understanding for adoption to turn out well. So did their birth parents and the adopters who volunteered to take them in. The first principle of therapeutic adoption was that everyone involved needed help to make it work, whether they knew it or not.

As a major theorist of professional help, Taft explored the difficulties of helping roles and the possibilities of helping relationships. Therapeutic interpretation and intervention were the antithesis of blame, Taft believed. She urged her colleagues to abandon moralistic notions about illegitimacy and outdated anxieties about “feeble-minded” children. All the people involved in adoption deserved to be active participants in the placement process. Even babies and very young children could become agents of their own growth rather than victims, if only given the chance.

Taft believed that adoption could bring love and belonging as well as pain and separation. But adoptive kinship would always substitute for natural kinship, based on blood. “We feel very much like a family,” wrote Taft to a colleague in 1923, after five-year-old Martha arrived in her family, “and some times wonder whether we are going to live through it.” “No one who is not willfully deluded would maintain that the experiences of adoption can take the place of the actual bearing and rearing of an own child,” she added in 1929. Throughout its modern history, fervent advocates of adoption believed that professional management could and should make adoption safer and happier. But even reformers like Taft conceded that adoption was different. It was not as real as the real thing.


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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
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