Mary Richmond and the Image of Social Work

By Murdach, Allison D. | Social Work, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Mary Richmond and the Image of Social Work


Murdach, Allison D., Social Work


Social work has always been very conscious of its public image, a fact that has been strongly reinforced today by a vigorous media campaign by NASW to promote a positive image of the profession throughout the country (Pace, 2008). Current attempts to achieve this goal seem focused on building a perception that social workers are helpful, organizationally committed, and ultraresponsive to client needs (LeCroy & Stinson, 2004; Lewis, 2004). An additional perspective on such efforts can he gained by stepping back to review past attempts to burnish and fortify the social work image. One outstanding historical example is afforded by the work of Mary Richmond, one of the founders of social work in this country, who constantly sought to improve the public's understanding of and appreciation for the profession. In this article, I focus on her written efforts in this area, because they provide examples of her most sustained efforts to develop a positive image of social work.

RICHMOND AND THE SOCIAL WORK IDEAL

Mary Richmond (1861-1928), social work author, practitioner, agency administrator, and pioneer of the profession, began her career at a Charity Organization Society (COS) agency in Baltimore, Maryland, and eventually became general secretary of the COS, first in the Baltimore office and then in the Philadelphia office. She ultimately served as an administrator for the prestigious Russell Sage Foundation in New York, where she directed its charity organization department.

Using her position as one of the most highly regarded social workers of her day, Richmond sought to change and develop the public's appreciation of social work in a number of ways, especially through her command of the written word. One of Richmond's goals in such writing was to spell out carefully the distinction between the social worker, whom she saw as possessing a valuable trained skill in developing human relationships, and the ordinary helpful individual or resource person, who was concerned about others but possessed no special skill or training in this area (Richmond, 1922). Since she had a love for biography, she sought to educate the public about the importance of this distinction by describing the careers of famous individuals whom she thought best illustrated the true nature of social work practice and provided exemplary models for ideal practitioner behavior and motivation. For example, she once illustrated the nature of social work practice by citing the career of Florence Nightingale and, hence, identified the profession with the ideals of nursing (Richmond, 1930). A more influential and extended example of her method is her effort to identify the ideal social worker with the educator or teacher, as illustrated in the introductory narrative of her classic direct practice text What Is Social Case Work? (Richmond, 1922).This work was written at time when social casework (now one word) stood for the totality of social work practice; thus, her remarks applied to the entire field of social work. I examine this narrative in some detail below to show the way in which she developed her model.

SOCIAL WORKER AS TEACHER

In her text, Richmond devoted 20 pages to a description of the helping relationship between two famous individuals, deaf-blind Helen Keller and her private teacher, Anne Sullivan. Richmond used this teaching relationship as a paradigm for ideal social work direct practice and, thus, "as an introduction to the subject of case work" (Richmond, 1922, p. 10). True to the instructional emphasis of what has been called the "maternalist tradition" in social work (Muncy, 1994; Tort & Abrams, 2004), Richmond (1922) emphasized the relationship's importance as a tool for guiding and forming character and personality.

Richmond began by presenting information about the origins of the relationship. Helen Keller, born in 1880 to a middle-class family in Alabama, was struck by a mysterious illness in her 19th month, which left her deaf, blind, and, because she couldn't hear, almost totally without speech. …

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