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School Social Work and White Womanhood

School Social Work and White Womanhood

The recent violence of White women has made the news and has ignited a wider conversation about White womanhood in the United States. While these contemporary acts of violence have garnered public attention, White women have always played a role in maintaining the United State’s racial hierarchy. For example, in the book, They Were Her Property Dr. Stephanie Jones-Rogers dispelled the common myth that White women did not participate in or profit from the enslavement of Africans and their descents. Additionally, Dr. Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s work detailed the participation of White women in the mid-20th century racial segregationist movements.

These historical works help us understand the status and function that is invoked when White women call the police on Black men. These historians conceptualize White womanhood as a status and function protected by White supremacy. Further that while the lives of White women at different times and in different contexts have been marked by subjugation, the status of White womanhood in society ultimately serves to maintain White supremacy.

White privilege and gender oppression are often separate conversations in social work. There has been little critical, public dialogue about the intersection of Whiteness and womanhood in the profession. This is more than unfortunate. It is dangerous. In a 1982 speech Black feminist, Audre Lorde spoke the famous words “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives”.

In this vein, we cannot address racism and patriarchy as separate issues in society or in social work.

To demonstrate, much of the social work workforce lives and works at a particular intersection of race and gender. A 2015 report sampled over 1,000 social workers and 72.5% identified as (presumably cis) women. Another report in 2017 found that 67.4% of active social workers with a Bachelors and 72.6% of active social workers with a Masters identified as White. This demographic pattern holds within school social work. In a 2014 survey of 3,769 school social workers 91.2% identified as female and 82% identified as White (Kelly, Frey, Thompson, Alvarez & Berzin, 2015). Though these numbers provide a shallow understanding, they do indicate that the majority of school social workers are White women.

I will open this article by first defining White supremacy and patriarchy as interlocking systems of domination that create the status of White womanhood. After establishing a foundation of shared understanding and vocabulary I will examine role of White womanhood in the visiting teachers movement. This exploration will challenge what is considered common historical knowledge about the profession. Lastly, I will explore what this counter-narrative means for school social worker’s professional identity and practice knowledge.

Defining White Supremacy

White supremacy is the structure of political, social, and economic domination that places people considered ‘White’ in positions of power and as a result subordinates anyone not considered White. This structural definition helps us understand that White supremacy does not exist within individuals. While individuals can cause harm, this definition helps us understand White supremacy as a structure of oppression that takes form through institutions, such as public education, as well as interpersonal interactions.

Understanding the Shifting Boundaries of Whiteness

In the United States, Whiteness formed through relentless racialized violence over centuries beginning with the Atlantic slave trade and settler colonialism in the 16th century. During enslavement, millions of Africans and their descendants across linguist, religious, tribal, and cultural groups were collapsed into the racial category ‘Black’. Through settler colonialism, Indigenous land was stolen and families were torn apart. As a result of these violent processes, distinct Tribal groups became ‘Indigenous’. Ultimately it was through racialized violence that Whiteness formed in contrast to Blackness and Indigeneity. This contrast meant that for much of US history to be White was to own property (rather than being treated as property) and to take the land (rather than have land taken away).

Though Whiteness in the United States formed against Blackness and Indigeneity, all racial categories changed over time and in specific geographic regions of the US. For example, during the 19th century, the Mexican-American War in the Southwest and Chinese immigration in the West shifted the boundaries of the United States' racial hierarchy. Additionally, in the midst of racialized violence, BIPOC communities fostered solidarity and rich political as well as cultural traditions. This was often done through acts of resistance and liberation. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in a letter to his son about Black identity, “They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people”.

How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev. Published in 1995 the book is an account of how Irish Americans gained acceptance and became White in America through hostile racial violence toward Black Americans. This book is one of the first historical works that documented the shifting boundaries of Whiteness from the 18th century onward.

Defining Patriarchy and Gender

Similar to White supremacy, patriarchy is a system of domination. However, instead of organizing society based on racial hierarchies, patriarchy organizes based on gender categories. There are parallels between race and gender as well as race-gender hierarchies. First, both are social constructions created by systems of domination (White supremacy and patriarchy). In the same way, we cannot think about race as a stable concept, we cannot think of gender as fixed. Second, similar to race, gender is often mistakenly viewed as rooted in biology. Biological justifications for gender are connected to oppressive ideas about reproduction and sexuality. Feminist and queer activists have long countered the notion that gender, sexuality, and expression are attached to biological criteria or that gender exists in the man-woman binary.

Locating White Womanhood at the Intersection of Race and Gender

Gender is attached to narrow societal expectations that often intersect with White supremacist ideologies and/or racial stereotypes. For example, in the 17th century, the status of White womanhood was constructed as a foil to White American masculinity. White masculinity was defined by the ability to work and engage in politics. In contrast White femininity centered on birthing and raising White American children. However, by the 1800s White womanhood expanded to include maternal civic services such as teaching and charity work. This is illustrated in the 1872 John Gast painting below.

In the painting, a White woman holding a school book guides Westward. Her body language and facial expression are bountiful. However benevolent her presentation might be, the imagery surrounding her depicts fear and violence. On the left side of the painting, she forces Indigenous Tribal Nations out of their land. Though she is drawn as a figure of goodness the Indigenous families are terrorized by her presence. Notice how the people under her are painted as masculine White workers. The presumably White men are engaging in agricultural labor. This indicates that the status of White womanhood had an active role in settler colonialism.

The painting American Progress by John Gast (1872)

For context, when this painting was made White women were being recruited into the teaching profession. Even before social work, the teaching profession was one of the first professions where middle-class White women could gain employment. White women were welcomed into the teaching profession because it was widely believed that they had an inherent morality and maternal skills that BIPOC men and women were perceived as not possessing (Meiners, 2002; Bauer, 2017). As a result, they would be suitable for work with children.

This painting demonstrates how a ‘helping profession’ can engage in racialized violence. It forces us to expand our idea of violence, which is typically seen as a masculine act when in reality racialized violence can occur in systems of ‘help’ through ‘feminine’ acts. For example, as settler colonialism expanded West, White women in the role of teachers actively participated in the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families. Thousands of children were taken from their families and forced into boarding schools. The explicit position of these schools was to assimilate Indigenous children into Whiteness and destroy Tribal bonds.

By acting as a feminized arm of White supremacy, White women in the teaching profession could participate in the painting’s title- American Progress.

When we understand the painting in this way we are able to locate White womanhood at the intersection of White supremacy and patriarchy. The painting above cannot simply be understood as a display of womanhood or a display of Whiteness, rather a display of White womanhood. Even more specifically, a display of the function of White womanhood within a professional occupation. The remainder of this article will explore White womanhood in school social work during the early 20th century. Specifically how the visiting teachers' movement’s professional identity and practice knowledge formed through the status of White womanhood.

The Effect of White Womanhood on Professional Identity

In the 19th century most (White) women’s work was seen as charity work. As a result, it was regarded as unskilled and less valuable. At the turn of the 20th century, White women with class privilege made a conscious effort to professionalize. Turning ‘charity work’ into ‘social work’ (Becker, 1964; Walkowitz, 1990). For the visiting teacher's movement, the path to professionalization relied on the status of White womanhood. As a result, the formation of professional identity within the visiting teachers' movement was inextricably linked to White supremacy. Actions the visiting teachers' movement took in this path have been covered in previous articles in this series: deployment of casework, racialized discourse about immigrant communities, and efforts to codify racial segregation in public education.

White Womanhood and Professional Identity

The relationship between White womanhood and professionalization is most evident in the language and imagery used by the visiting teacher's movement. Until the mid 20th-century school social work associations and publications almost consistently used feminine pronouns (she, her, and hers) when referring to practitioners and used masculine pronouns (he, him, and his) to generally refer to students. Additionally, the visiting teacher's movement widely circulated images of White women as visiting teachers.

This image, from a 1926 issue of the Bulletin, personifies the visiting teachers' movement as White women. The difference between 1913 to 1933 is supposed to demonstrate the ‘improvement’ casework made to the profession. Notice how the visiting teacher on the right is diagnosing children as “racial differences”.

In the early 20th century visiting teachers movement, the race of a visiting teacher was mentioned only once. In the example below from New York City, the visiting teacher was identified as a Black woman. Since this was the only time the visiting teachers' movement mentioned the race of its members, it leaves us to assume that Whiteness was the profession’s status quo. Additionally, the way the Black woman is situated in the example further indicates that the performance of White womanhood was expected.

To demonstrate, the text makes it clear that her role was to make Black students and families comfortable with the values of a majority White woman profession. This indicates that the Black woman’s professional worth is directly tied to her ability to legitimatize the prototype visiting teacher-a White woman. It is not that the visiting teachers' movement expected the Black woman to become a White woman. Rather it was expected that she would act on behalf of White womanhood as the professional standard.

This is an excerpt from a 1926 issue of the Bulletin. The excerpt is from a section of the issue titled “West Harlem”. The section describes the racial demographics of the New York City neighborhood and the work of the visiting teacher in those neighborhood schools.

The language used by the visiting teachers' movement did not only form a prototype visiting teacher, but it also formed the prototype student. Unless the student was identified as a girl, masculine pronouns were used to refer to students. Additionally, unless the student was BIPOC, an immigrant, or a child of immigrants the race and nationality of the child were never mentioned. The ways the profession included/excluded gender, race, and nationality created a prototype student- White, American born, and masculine. This language reflects the White supremacist and patriarchal ideology of the period, which was pervasive across the United States. However, it is important to note that the visiting teachers' movement did not challenge but in fact, reinforced these ideologies. While centering White masculinity was pervasive throughout the early 20th century it did not go unchallenged. BIPOC activists such as Iba B. Wells organized to abolish harmful policies as well as build structures of support (Bent-Goodley, Snell & Carlton-LaNey, 2017). To explain the visiting teachers' movement as ‘typical of the time’ obscures harm and undermines resistance efforts.

This is a drawing from a 1929 issue of the Bulletin. Here we see the prototype American student- a White masculine child holding a baseball bat. We cannot know if the boy in the image is an immigrant or a child of immigrants. However, we are able to see how the visiting teachers' movement centered on Whiteness and often masculinity as the normative student group.

White Womanhood and Professional Associations

In addition to shaping professional identity, White womanhood influenced what the visiting teachers' movement considered practice knowledge. The visiting teachers' movement made a conscious effort to require specialized training and coursework. These requirements were designed to increase the status of the profession. However, it is important to understand these requirements in a historical context.

In the early 20th century the United States there were various barriers to formal social work training for BIPOC practitioners. For example, while racial segregation in higher education was not always explicitly written into law, regional practices of economic oppression, housing segregation, and racially motivated rejections prevented university enrollment. As a result, fewer BIPOC social workers were able to enroll in schools of social work. As a form of resistance to such barriers, many BIPOC social workers sought training through apprenticeships and special courses. To demonstrate, a 1994 article by Robenia Baker Gary and Lawrence E. Gary details the barriers to formal training as well as the resistance of Black social workers from 1900-1930. Contextualizing the specific training and education expectations helps us understand the implications of the professionalized requirements.

Visiting Teachers’ Exclusionary Professional Requirements

Below is a membership application in a 1928 issue of the Bulletin for the National Association of Visiting Teachers (NAVT). NAVT was the first professional organization in the visiting teachers' movement. As a result, NAVT was a center of professional conversation and development throughout the early 20th century. In addition to publishing the Bulletin, NAVT defined the qualifications of visiting teachers. By determining who was able to be a professional, NAVT determined who had access to employment and a select professional network.

This is the first portion of the application. It asks for what we may consider typical information about potential members.

Notice above that questions about racial and gender identity are not explicitly asked. However, especially in the case of segregated cities, it is possible that home address could have indicated the applicant’s racial identity. In addition to not being on the membership form, the visiting teachers' movement did not include such information in occupational surveys. As we established earlier it was because White women were considered the prototype visiting teacher.

Here the application form begins to track the educational attainment of potential members.

The image above indicates that the NAVT expected members to have college degrees.

As a result of White supremacist policies and practices, many BIPOC practitioners did not have access to institutions of higher education.

Therefore, this requirement had exclusionary consequences. If the NAVT was aware of racial exclusion as a consequence of these requirements the organization never acknowledged it. There is also no evidence that the visiting teachers' movement acted in solidarity with BIPOC practitioners to increase access to university training and education.

The NAVT membership application form asks for further clarification on social work training.

In addition to having classroom teaching experience, visiting teachers were expected to have had training in a school of social work. Again many of these departments were highly segregated and exclusionary to BIPOC practitioners.

This section is further evidence of the expected teaching background of NAVT members. Within a decade this requirement would no longer exist.
This section of the NAVT membership form asks for social work experience.

The image above asks the applicant to list previous social work experience. Consider how racial segregation operated in different regions of the United States during the time. Whether by state law or regional practice many sites of employment for social workers were racially segregated. When denied employment through formal organizations, BIPOC social workers found employment through mutual aid networks and political organizations (Nakato Glenn, 2002). The NAVT never indicated how such work experience would be evaluated in the application process.

The last section of the NAVT application asks for two references from existing active members. In the context of widespread social, economic, and political racial segregation during the early 20th century, this portion of the application can be understood as another way of gatekeeping the profession.

The NAVT application above demonstrates how racial segregation operated within the profession. Asian, Latine, Indigenous, and Black social workers were active during the early 20th century. However, the visiting teachers' movement excluded their knowledge and experiences. The centering and recentering of White womanhood in school social work limited what was considered practice knowledge. A motivation for this may have been to foster a particular professional image defined by Whiteness and femininity. Specifically, an image that aligned with the values of majority White-run school boards, private foundations, and regional governments.


The visiting teacher archives demonstrate school social work’s historical connections to the material and symbolic status of White womanhood. As outlined above, NAVT membership was unofficially defined by early 20th century notions of Whiteness and womanhood. By design NAVT organizational leaders are all women and, given NAVT’s prototype visiting teacher, it could be assumed most (if not all) were White women.

While the Bulletin featured men and women as contributors, the men were from other fields such as Psychology and Psychiatry. These men wrote about topics of mental hygiene, individual therapeutic intervention, and often praised casework. The women authors were from organizations visiting teachers partnered with or were visiting teachers themselves. We can presume that both the men and women contributors were overwhelmingly, if not entirely, White. We are lead to this conclusion based on the partnering organizations mentioned in the Bulletin (racially segregated organizations such as the YMCA and Americanization programs) combined with NAVT’s silence on racial identity and racism. Given the leadership of the NAVT and authorship of the Bulletin, school social work’s early 20th century archives should be considered racially exclusionary. Unfortunately, this is not unique to the school social work archives.

Across the profession our historical archives are dominated by the voices of White woman and are absent of BIPOC perspectives.

I consider this a limitation of the archives and think strengthens my argument- the visiting teachers movement’s professional identity and practice knowledge was defined by White womanhood. I am not making a statement about the morality of individual White women during the early 20th century. Nor am I making conclusions about their intentions or motivations. Rather in this analysis, I am interested in the visiting teacher movement’s talk, text, and actions. Specifically how the profession’s talk, text, and actions aligned with the status of White womanhood.

As the last article in the series, I attempted to integrate the topics we previously discussed:

  • Article 1: Casework and science
  • Article 2: Immigration and citizenship
  • Article 3: Racial segregation in public education

To understand the impact of White womanhood in the formation of school social work it is important to contextualize Whiteness and gender in its historical period. During the early 20th century middle-class White women were certainly constrained economically, socially, and politically.

However acknowledgement of gender oppression does not nullify racial domination. It is important to recognize that the visiting teachers movement was exclusionary along the lines of gender, race and class.

As a result, these expectations alienated those who were unwilling or unable to engage with White womanhood. This series set out to accomplish two things. First, to address the stories we tell ourselves about our profession’s history and practice. These stories were often exclusionary, inaccurate, and have allowed us to avoid difficult conversations. Second, to acknowledge the impact of our work. I hope that this series helps us understand that school social work does not only respond to society. School social work makes society. School social workers do not simply intervene in social problems. We have the potential to construct those problems as well as engage in creating a more just society. This counterstory empowers us as well as pushes us to understand our accountability and reevaluate who we are accountable to. Lastly, the visiting teachers movement pushes us to consider the investments White women and White social work movements have made in maintaining racial-economic hierarchies.


Bauer, N. K. (2017). (En) Gendering Whiteness: A Historical Analysis of White Womanhood, Colonial Anxieties, and" Tender Violence" in US Schools. University of California, Berkeley.

Becker, D. G. (1964). Exit lady bountiful: The volunteer and the professional social worker. Social Service Review, 38(1), 57-72.

Bent-Goodley, T., Snell, C. L., & Carlton-LaNey, I. (2017). Black perspectives and social work practice. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 27(1/2), 27–35. 10.1080/10911359.2016.1252604

Gary, R. B., & Gary, L. E. (1994). The history of social work education for Black people 1900-1930. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 21, 67.

Glenn, E. N. (2009). Unequal freedom. Harvard University Press.

Kelly, M. S., Frey, A., Thompson, A., Klemp, H., Alvarez, M., & Berzin, S. C. (2015). Assessing the national school social work practice model: Findings from the second national school social work survey. Social Work, 61(1), 17-28. 10.1093/sw/swv044

Jones-Rogers, S. E. (2019). They were her property: White women as slave owners in the American South. Yale University Press.

McRae, E. G. (2018). Mothers of massive resistance: White women and the politics of white supremacy. Oxford University Press.

Meiners, E. R. (2002). Disengaging from the legacy of Lady Bountiful in teacher education classrooms. Gender and Education, 14(1), 85-94. 10.1080/09540250120098861

Walkowitz, D. J. (1990). The making of a feminine professional identity: Social workers in the 1920s. The American Historical Review, 95(4), 1051-1075. 10.2307/2163478

About The Author

Samantha Guz

Samantha Guz LCSW is a doctoral student at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice at the University of Chicago. Her research interests include school social work, public education policy and politics, holistic family and adolescent wellbeing, gendered Whiteness, as well as critical feminist research and practice. Her current work is focused on alternative high schools and gendered Whiteness within the profession of social work.

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