Legacy of the Vocational Bureau of Cincinnati: Research Advances Social Justice

By Burns, Stephanie T. | Career Development Quarterly, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Legacy of the Vocational Bureau of Cincinnati: Research Advances Social Justice


Burns, Stephanie T., Career Development Quarterly


The author discusses the lives of Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley and M. Edith Campbell, who together shaped the legacy of the Vocational Bureau of Cincinnati. Using scientific research in controlled experimental settings allowed Woolley and Campbell to legitimize their social and vocational reform agendas and influence powerful government, school, and social service leaders. By 1921, they created 1 of the most progressive vocational programs in the country, delivering career counseling, vocational guidance and placement, physical and psychological testing, educational measurement and testing, protection and services for the physically and mentally handicapped, preventative measures for juvenile delinquency, and scholarships for students.

A discussion of the progenitors and pioneers of the vocational guidance movement must include the contributions of Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley and M. Edith Campbell, who together shaped the legacy of the Vocational Bureau of Cincinnati between the years of 1909 and 1926. Campbell and Woolley created names for themselves in their respective communities before bringing together their talents for only 1 decade to facilitate potent change in the vocational landscape for women and children. The two women expertly wielded the power of research to promote social reform and transformation in a time when women, like children, were to be seen and not heard. This article brings together the story of these two prominent women and the legacy they created at the Vocational Bureau of Cincinnati.

Understanding the socially constructed role of women at the turn of the century assists in the appreciation of the accomplishments of these two courageous women. Scientific discussions by men such as W. L. Distant, William James, and G. H. Schneider, at the time, alleged that women were nothing more than frail and ignorant. Science deemed that the sole female traits of vanity, egotism, irritableness, and nervousness were transformed only by the experience of motherhood. These types of narratives commonly served as validation for men to exclude women with their "inborn" limitations from educational and occupational opportunities. Within this defeatist environment, two women challenged and changed the social and vocational fabric for women and children in America.

Helen Bradford Thompson was born on November 6, 1874, in Chicago, to parents who enthusiastically supported her educational aspirations (James, James, & Boyer, 1971). Woolley attended the University of Chicago after graduating valedictorian in her class from Englewood High School (Dalton & Evans, 2004; James et al., 1971). John Dewey, Woolley 's professor at the University of Chicago, strongly advocated for educational reform (Dalton & Evans, 2004; Rosenberg, 1982). Jane Addams and Florence Kelly inspired Woolley as a student with their advocacy and social justice efforts while she volunteered at Hull House (Dalton & Evans, 2004; Milar, 1999).

Under the direction of James R. Angeli, Woolley's doctoral thesis was the first major scientific experimental research study comparing the mental traits of men and women (Milar, 2000; Thompson, 1903) and became the most significant clash with societal norms attempted by any of the female psychologists at the time. She directly challenged the nonempirical, yet accepted psychological writings on the biological basis of the inferiority of women. In addition, she made substantial changes in the way research would be reported in the future. Woolley matched the control group and the treatment group in social, economic, and educational background; controlled for confounding variables; and refrained from using distorted distributions of data (Rosenberg, 1982). She offered detailed descriptions of her administration of psychological tests, listed sources of error, and reported the scores of each test (Dalton & Evans, 2004). Unlike her colleagues, Woolley, following in Francis Galton's footsteps, reported and graphed the distribution of all the scores. …

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