Bertha Reynolds (1885 – 1978)

Along with Jane Addams, Mary Richmond, and Jane Jacobs, Bertha Reynolds is a noteworthy lady who contributed to the history of social work in North America. Bertha Capen was born in 1885 (though it is sometimes misstated as 1887), and the early death of her father from tuberculosis and the family's relocation from Brockton, Massachusetts to Boston dominated her childhood. Her mother was highly protective of Bertha because she was home-educated and had already lost two children. She has poor social skills as a result. Bertha's aunt subsequently provided financial support for her education, enabling her to get a Smith College diploma in 1908.  Psychotherapy was sought after by Bertha Reynolds because she struggled with her identity. She felt called to change the world as a result, and she decided to pursue social work training. After working for a while, she went back to Smith College to complete her psychiatric social work training.

Reynolds was drawn to Freud's ideas but turned off by the way social work evolved to pathologize every problem and make it a personal concern for each individual. She believed that care for the individual, along with structural and institutional measures, was more beneficial. She can therefore be considered one of the pioneers of what eventually evolved into radical social work.

Bertha Reynolds became associate director of Smith College School of Social Work in 1925 

She was appointed associate director of Smith College School of Social Work in 1925 when her contributions and perspectives on social work were recognized. Here, she developed an interest in socialism and marxism and started advocating for the unionization of social workers. Her most well-known works, Between Client and Community (first published in 1934 but not published as a book until 1973), and Learning and Teaching in the Practice of Social Work both contained publications of her opinions (1942).

Bertha 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.” said Reynolds of social casework. She suggested that before dealing with individuals, social work should focus on getting the ship seaworthy. In this way, she created a link between private social work and neighborhood improvement. She had to leave Smith College in 1938 since not everyone shared her opinions and sympathies for leftist politics. She later created short-term social work interventions as a substitute for the long-term nature of social casework while working for the National Maritime Union. This method is reflective of her own life, since she "recovered" from psychotherapy in her early years.

Joseph McCarthy, a republican US senator, led a witch hunt against everyone who might be accused of communist sympathies in the early 1950s. As a result of this McCarthyism, Bertha Reynolds suffered, and she was essentially banished from the social work profession. She continued to work as a social worker, trainer, and author, nevertheless. Fortunately, she has now been rehabilitated by the social work profession and is now regarded as the mother of strength-based social work.

The Bertha Capen Reynolds Society was established in 1985, on the occasion of her 100th birthday. Later, it changed its name to the Social Welfare Action Alliance, or SWAA, and continues to operate today.

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