NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
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 Unchartered 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.