Women’s social participation and the origin of social workers

Public Relations Office        March 21, 2013

Konomi Imai, Professor of the School of Human Welfare Studies

Konomi Imai

I used to be hooked on NHK’s rerun TV cartoon Daddy-Long-Legs. My two daughters also loved it very much. So we used to record the program regularly and watch it together when we had time. Daddy-Long-Legs is a children’s novel written by an American novelist in the early 20th century. The story is about the heroine Judy, brought up at an orphanage, who is lucky to have her literary talent discovered by a wealthy man and attends college with his support to become independent. Judy calls her unknown benefactor “Daddy Long-Legs.” This is a kind of a Cinderella story that ends with the marriage of Judy to “Daddy Long-Legs,” but what interests me is the state of social welfare and lifestyles of women in the U.S. of the early 20th century that is portrayed in the novel.

In the story, for example, Judy hates charitable activities by upper-class ladies she has witnessed at the orphanage, because they seem self-complacent and hypocritical. In those days, charitable work was a typical act of noblesse oblige or “noble obligation” of upper-class people. Judy works hard to realize her dream of becoming a novelist in order to support herself, while her close friend Sally becomes the head of an orphanage in the sequel to Daddy-Long-Legs. Highly-educated, middle-class women of the time were destined to get married, take up teaching, do missionary work or engage in social work, which was organized charitable work and the forerunner of social welfare.

Social work, or the current social welfare profession in the U.S. was established as a female profession by dedicated middle-class women of the time. Charitable activities, which Judy hates, were conducted individually, leading to a problematic situation where the non-needy received support while the needy were neglected. At the same time, there was a growing awareness that one-sided alms-giving would not encourage benefit recipients to become independent. To resolve such problems, the Charity Organization Societies (COS) was established in London in the late 19th century. Based on the British model, charity organization societies were established all over the U.S. in the 20th century. Charity organization societies sent friendly visitors to visit needy families and investigate their living conditions, then provided necessary support for their

self-reliance. Later such home visits evolved into scientific social investigations. Using collected case records from such home visits, Mary Richmond systematized social case work and helped establish social work as a profession. She was the author of Social Diagnosis, published in 1917, and contributed to training of professional social workers. The vast majority of people who aspired to move into this new profession were women. In the times when professions such as medicine and law were dominated by men, social work was newly established as a profession for women.

The TV cartoon Daddy-Long-Legs features a scene concerning such a woman in those days. One day, in her adult years, Judy meets the woman, who works for an orphanage. The woman is a warm, family-like figure to children when she takes care of them. However, she is a determined negotiator dressed in a suit and makeup when she faces society as a social worker for an orphanage—she seemed to be demonstrating that she was a professional woman. Judy finds a model of an independent woman in this social worker.

Profile of Konomi Imai

She has a Ph.D. in social work and specializes in social welfare, especially the history of social welfare, gender and women’s welfare. After graduating from university, she joined a company, but when she got married, she left the company and became a mother. After living as a full-time housewife for some time, she enrolled in the Social Welfare Course (master’s degree course) of the Graduate School of Letters at Doshisha University; she completed the Social Welfare Course (doctoral course) and received a Ph.D. in 2003. After serving as Assistant Professor of the Department of Health and Welfare Sciences at Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences, she worked as Associate Professor of the School of Human Welfare Studies at Kwansei Gakuin University since 2008 until she took up her current position in 2010. She received an Outstanding Academic Award of the JSSW (Japan Society for the Study of Social Welfare) in 2006 for her book Motherhood Protection Debate from a Social Welfare Perspective— History of Gender Movement (Domesu Publishers Inc., 2005.)