Bertha Reynolds is another remarkable woman to be part of the contribution of North America to the history of social work, alongside to Jane Addams, Mary Richmond and Jane Jacobs. Born Bertha Capen in 1885 (sometimes wrongly stated as 1887), her youth became dominated by her father’s early death from tuberculosis and the family`s move from Brockton, Massachusetts to Boston. Having already lost two children, her mother was very protective and Bertha washome educated. As a result, her social skills were weak. Bertha`s aunt subsequently funded her studies and this allowed her to graduate from Smith College in 1908.
Bertha Reynolds was not at ease with herself, and underwent psychotherapy. This led her to social work training, and a sense of a calling to better the world. After some years of practice, she returned to Smith College to train as a psychiatric social worker.
Although attracted to the thinking of Freud, Reynolds was disenchanted with the development within social work that pathologized every problem, turning it into an individual issue, a personal problem. She saw more benefit in structural and institutional approaches combined with care for the individual. As such, she can be seen as one of the forerunners of what later became radical social work.
Her work and views on social work were recognised and in 1925 she became associate director of Smith College School of Social Work. Here she became interested in socialism and Marxism and began to calling for social workers to be unionised. Her views were published in her best known work Between client and community (published in 1934, but not as a book until 1973) and Learning and teaching in the practice of social work (1942).
Reynolds was critical of social casework: “Doing casework seems to some like setting out deck chairs for the comfort of a few passengers when everyone on board a sinking ship should be manning the lifeboats.” She argued it should be social work’s priority to make the ship seaworthy before dealing with individuals. In this respect, she made a bridge between individual social work and community development. Not everybody agreed with her views and sympathy for the politics of the left, and in 1938 she had to resign from Smith College. Subsequently working for the National Maritime Union, she developed short-term social work interventions as an alternative to the long-term nature of social casework. This approach reflects her own biography, as she ‘recovered’ in her youth after very few sessions of psychotherapy.
In the early 1950’s, the republican US senator Joseph McCarthy organized a witch-hunt against anybody who could be blamed of communist sympathies. Bertha Reynolds became a victim of this McCarthyism and the social work community basically expelled her. Nontheless, she remained active as a social worker, trainer and author. Fortunately the social work community has since rehabilitated her and now considers her a founding mother of strength-based social work.
On the 100th anniversary of her birth, in 1985, the Bertha Capen Reynolds Society was formed. It later changed names to the Social Welfare Action Alliance, SWAA, which is the name under which is still active.
This text was written by Jan Steyaert
Date of first publication: 06-2013
Date of latest revision: 06-2019