NASW Pioneers Biography Index

The National Association of Social Workers Foundation is pleased to present the NASW Social Work Pioneers®. NASW Pioneers are social workers who have explored new territories and built outposts for human services on many frontiers. Some are well known, while others are less famous outside their immediate colleagues, and the region where they live and work. But each one has made an important contribution to the social work profession, and to social policies through service, teaching, writing, research, program development, administration, or legislation.

The NASW Pioneers have paved the way for thousands of other social workers to contribute to the betterment of the human condition; and they are are role models for future generations of social workers. The NASW Foundation has made every effort to provide accurate Pioneer biographies.  Please contact us at to provide missing information, or to correct inaccurate information. It is very important to us to correctly tell these important stories and preserve our history.  

Please note, an asterisk attached to a name reflects Pioneers who have passed away. All NASW Social Work Pioneers® Bios are Copyright © 2021 National Association of Social Workers Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

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Leslie Leighninger* (1943-2024)

Pioneering Contributions

Leslie Leighninger, DSW, made groundbreaking contributions  to share knowledge about the social work profession and about social welfare historical developments. Her efforts resulted in an improved understanding of historical developments for other social workers as well as historians. In her leadership role at the Social Welfare History Group, she spearheaded a program with the American Historical Association to share of the work of social welfare historians. As a policy and social welfare history scholar, educator, and administrator she greatly expanded the knowledge base in the evolution of the social work profession and in social welfare in general.

Her landmark textbook (14 editions) Social Work, Social Welfare and American Society, provided students with an understanding of social welfare debates in both historical and contemporary contexts.  During her active years, through the Journal of Progressive Human Services she shared a wealth of knowledge on radical movements in social work during the 1930’s, issues pertaining to women and minorities in social work, and public welfare policies in American society. The social policies of the 60s and the policies of the New Deal were her special areas of expertise.  She was also a co-founder of the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare with her husband, Robert Leighninger.  She was a key resource in the production of the CSWE and NASW collaborative video, Legacies of Social Change, that was funded by the Brown Foundation of Houston, Texas.

Career Highlights

Leighninger began her social work career in mental health and, after working part time for several years, she entered the SUNY higher education system part time before becoming a full-time educator. She was a director of the Baccalaureate Program at Western Michigan University, an associate dean at Louisiana State University, and director of the School of Social Work at Arizona State University. She was a leader in the Social Welfare History Group (SWHG) meetings at the Council on Social Work Education and served as vice president of the Council on Social Work Education. She was helpful and accepting of research on perceived residual social welfare developments in the segregated Black community. She assumed a leadership role for members of the SWHG group to help raise the visibility of community care among Black women during the Progressive Era. 

Leighninger gave legitimacy to biographical essays within the Social Welfare History Group by labeling the study of historical developments in a “separate sphere” or promoting a more inclusive discussion among members. Leighninger was also a member of the Founding Scholars Advisory Committee of the VCU Libraries Social Welfare History Project founded by NASW Social Work Pioneer, Dr. John Hansan.  Leighninger was a member of NASW from 1992-2012. During that time, she served on the NASW Publications Committee, the Book Committee, served as a delegate to Delegate Assembly and was an active donor to LDF, PACE, and the NASW Foundation.

Her leadership and career in social welfare history, and as a successful author and teacher, demonstrated her commitment to excellence and to preserving social work’s historic evolution in the United States and beyond. 

Biographic Information

Leslie Leighninger pursued her BA in history at Oberlin College in Ohio, anticipating a social work career. She was awarded an MSW from Syracuse University in 1965, and a DSW from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1981. Her Berkeley dissertation on the professionalization of social work between 1930 and 1960 led to the Greenwood Press book publication, Social Work: Search for Identity. The major changes described in this publication during these crucial years are seen as filling an important gap in social work history. This work also contributes to general American history by addressing the development and changes among all professions during this time period.

Significant Achievements and Awards

Leighninger won a Best Paper Award from the Bertha Capen Reynolds Society of Smith College.  For a number of years, she developed and authored the “From the Archives” section in the Journal of Progressive Human Services and in 2002 was recognized for her insightful commentary which provided the readership with a better understanding of oppression and resistance in historical context.

Significant Publications

Leighninger published numerous scholarly articles, essays, books and two widely used landmark textbooks, including: Social Work: Search for Identity ; Social Work, Social Welfare and American Society (with Phillip Popple), 14 editions; The Policy-Based Profession: An Introduction to Social Welfare Policy for Social Workers (with Phillip Popple), 11 editions; Creating a New Profession: The Beginnings of Social Work Education in the United States; entry in “Edith Abbottin the Encyclopedia of Social Welfare and Social Work in North America; entry in the Encyclopedia of Social Welfare and Social Work in North America.

Newly Inducted NASW Social Work Pioneer Hortense McClinton 2015

Nominate A New NASW Pioneer

Please note, Pioneer nominations made between today’s date through March 31, 2023, will not be reviewed until spring 2023.

Completed NASW Pioneer nominations can be submitted throughout the year and are reviewed at the June Pioneer Steering Committee Meeting. To be considered at the June meeting, submit your nomination package by March 31. To learn more, visit our Pioneer nomination guidelines.

New Pioneers 

Congratulations newly elected Pioneers!  Pioneers will be inducted at the 2023  Annual Program and Luncheon. Full biographies and event details coming soon.