Grace Abbott, the sister of Edith Abbott, was born in Grand Island, Nebraska on 17th November, 1878. Both sisters were influenced by their mother's passionate belief in equal rights for women. After graduating from college she worked as a school teacher in Grand Island while continuing her studies at the University of Nebraska.
In 1907 Abbott moved to Chicago where she became a resident of Hull House and joined other women interested in social reformer such as Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, Mary McDowell, Mary Kenney, Edith Abbott, Alzina Stevens, Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop, Alice Hamilton and Sophonisba Breckinridge.
Abbott joined with Sophonisba Breckinridge to establish the Immigrants' Protective League (IPL). As well as being director of IPL she taught at the University of Chicago (1910-17). Abbott wrote a series of articles about the way immigrants were exploited for the Chicago Evening Post (1909-10). A book on the subject, The Immigrant and the Community, was published in 1917.
In 1917 Woodrow Wilson appointed Abbott as director of the child-labour division of the United States Children's Bureau. After the Keating-Owen Act was declared unconstitutional in 1918, Abbott resigned and became director of Illinois State Immigrants Commission.
Warren Harding appointed Abbott to replace Julia Lathrop as head of the Children's Bureau in 1921. However, her work was handicapped by the Sheppard-Towner Act being declared unconstitutional in 1922. During this period Abbott was a member of the Advisory Committee on Traffic in Women and Children (1922-34) that had been established by the League of Nations.
In 1934 Abbott became professor of public welfare at the University of Chicago and was involved in helping Franklin D. Roosevelt draft the Social Security Act (1935). This legislation that set up a national system of old age pensions and co-ordinated federal and state action for the relief of the unemployed.
Abbott was also editor of the Social Service Review (1934-39) and the author of The Child and the State (1938). Grace Abbott died in Chicago on 19th June, 1939. From Relief to Social Security (1941) was published posthumously.