We are excited to present some information about this organization's namesake, Bertha Capen Reynolds, a true pioneer, an often overlooked social work pioneer, who offered alternatives to the psychopathologizing of "everything" in favor of systemic, structural, institutional and organizational perspectives and our behavior within and in response to them.
Progressives in the US can learn a lot from the life and work of Bertha Capen Reynolds because she was one of the earliest activists to combine the critique of capitalism embedded in Marxism with the insights gained from a psychoanalytic perspective. As a socialist and communist, she was a leader among radical social workers in the 1930s and 1940s who applied her ever more complex analysis to areas of clinical practice and social work education. During the McCarthy era, Reynolds was red baited out of the profession she had done so much to build with only a few progressive defenders.
It was not until at the end of her life that the profession rediscovered Bertha Reynolds - and even then it tried to avoid discussing her most radical activity and affiliations. It was to honor all of her life's work that the Bertha Capen Reynolds Society (the previous name for SWAA) was formed, on the 100th anniversary of her birth, in 1985.
--Thanks to Ann Withorn, from the "non-social-work-but-Bertha-appreciating-left," for this contribution.
Thanks to NASW Foundation, you can read an entry in their Pioneers Listing [that] has been excerpted here:
Bertha Capen Reynolds (1885-1978)
Social work is blessed to have as one of its early founders a person of deep and wide ranging intellect, of compassion, and of independence and integrity. Social work is shamed, as well, by its failure to stand up for this courageous and radical New England woman during conservative times when she was far from "politically correct" by wanting to change poverty and racism and by employing unions and Marxism in the struggle. To the credit and benefit of the profession, Bertha Reynolds has been restored to her rightful place as a progressive educator, creative and original thinker, clinician and community worker who strove to broaden and deepen social work practice.
Reynolds was born in Stoughton, Massachusetts. The death of her father, when she was a child, necessitated a move to Boston so her mother could work as a teacher. An aunt paid the tuition for her to attend Smith College, where she received her BS in 1908. She suffered from bouts of unknown illness which might have been emotional as well as physical, but eventually decided to attend a two year course in social work at Simmons College. She received a second BS degree in 1914. On her application, in response to her professional goals, she described them as a desire to help poor people and the Negro and to be able to earn her living.
After graduation, she worked in Boston at a North End Health Clinic. When Smith College began a psychiatric social work program, Reynolds entered the first class in 1917-1918. After completing her studies, she taught in the program, becoming Associate Dean in 1925. She participated in the historical Milford Conference. Administrative tensions with the Dean resulted in her termination in 1938. Particularly upsetting to the administration were her attempts at unionizing college personnel and her avowed Marxist thinking.
Reynolds eventually found employment with the Maritime Union where she worked with the men and their families. She wrote a book on her casework that showed her respect and sensitivity to this population. Funds ran out after a few years and thereafter her employment was sporadic. She was a visiting professor at the University of Michigan briefly.
Eventually Reynolds retired and devoted herself to writing. Among her many important works, Learning and Teaching in the Practice of Social Work stands out as a classic. It is widely used today and it continues to shape the thinking of social work educators as well as those of other disciplines such as psychiatry and psychology.
In a dissertation on Bertha Reynolds, "A Woman Struggling in her Times," her biographer felt Reynolds' creativity and intellectual work were shaped by three major conflicting philosophies: Christianity, Freudian (and other) dynamic psychological theories, and Marxism. In her autobiography, An Uncharted Journey, Reynolds stated that she felt as though a door had closed on her. The profession has managed to open that door and future generations will benefit.
Other references to Bertha Capen Reynolds:
In a preface to Si Kahn's book titled Organizing, Richard Edwards includes the work of Bertha Capen Reynolds in his essay/introduction. We recommend having a look at that and, of course, at Si's book as well.
Dr. Sharon Freedberg gave a presentation at the Lehman College for a Women and Work Conference in 2001. Dr. Freedberg also has an article about Bertha Capen Reynolds in Freedberg, S. (1986). Religion, profession, and politics: Bertha Capen Reynolds' challenge to social work. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 56/2: 95-110.
Dr. Michael Reisch wrote an article about social justice in which he cites and discusses Bertha Capen Reynolds. This article can be found in Families in Society with the title "Defining social justice in a socially unjust world".
WHY DID WE CHANGE OUR NAME especially since Bertha was so cool and so ahead of her time?
Changing names was a difficult choice for our organization mostly because we know Bertha Reynolds was SO cool and had such an impact upon our profession and those who knew her. Still, unlike Jane Addams and Mary Richmond, two well-known and acknowledged leaders in the social work profession, Bertha Reynolds' work, ideas, and activism were not as popular or well-received. As a result, she is less well-known. For us, as progressives who value education, we thought learning about her, especially as we struggled to make a new organization with a different kind of structure and presence in and around social work, would lead to greater recognition of both Bertha Reynolds' life and work but also of our original society, the Bertha Capen Reynolds Society.
However, over the years it became apparent to us in our activist lives that we spent a good deal of time talking about who Bertha Capen Reynolds was and what she did and stood for and that cut into the time of actually working on the issues of the day - with potential allies, students, co-workers, consumers - it didn't matter. Too few people knew who she was and we had to make a decision - keep the name as it was and continue to work on name recognition, mission and goals alliances, and process for the organization or, change our name and suffer the consequences that name changes result in but regain a focus for our purpose and mission. All of this in light of the fact that very few presenters at our gatherings "invoked" the work of BCR or, for that matter, had many of our own members read her work. We knew this was an uphill battle and we opted for the change, but to keep her presence alive in our materials, Book Fund, sample syllabi, and such. In fall, 1999, the National Steering Committee voted to change the name from Bertha Capen Reynolds Society to the Social Welfare Action Alliance.
Don't be one of the few progressive human service workers who has yet to read any of the works by Bertha Capen Reynolds. Visit our Book Fund list today and make your order.
If you are a social work or human service librarian, a community librarian, an agency resource person and can purchase publications for your organization, please visit our Book Fund to make your purchases of BCR publications. No social work or human service program should be without them!
--Information compiled by Michel Coconis