Jessie Taft was a prominent early national authority on child placement,
an advocate for adoption professionalization, and a prophet of therapeutic
adoption. Born in rural Iowa in 1882, Taft was one of very few American
women to pursue doctoral studies in the early twentieth century.
She graduated in 1913 from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D.
in philosophy and a strong taste for social psychology. Because
the male-dominated academic world she loved was closed to her, Taft
made her way in the more hospitable women's world of social
work. For two decades, she worked in child and family services
before finally joining the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania
School of Social Work in 1934.
Taft's career took her from the New York State Charities Aid Association
to the Children's Aid Society of Pennsylvania. She was a leader
of the movement to modernize adoption through minimum
standards, mental and developmental tests, skilled supervision,
and empirical research such as field
studies and outcome studies.
She knew Sophie van Senden Theis, and Theis
encouraged Taft and her life-partner, Virginia Robinson (also an
important figure in social work
and child welfare), to
take the risk of adopting themselves. The couple raised two children
together, Everett and Martha, in Flourtown, Pennsylvania, where
they belonged to a tight-knit community of like-minded professional
women. A number of these friends also adopted children, deliberately
bought homes in close proximity, spent holidays together, and provided
one another with lifelong mutual aid.
Taft is known today, if she is known at all, as the translator,
biographer, and leading American exponent of renegade Viennese psychoanalyst
Otto Rank. Taft met him in 1924, entered analysis with him in 1926,
and eventually arranged for Rank's immigration to the United States
and his employment at the University of Pennsylvania. Taft was largely
responsible for Rank's fame in America, but deserves to be remembered
for her own remarkable accomplishments. Until her death in 1960,
Taft's work was located in between the male world of social science
and the female world of help. Psychological sophistication, she
believed, was the thread linking objectivity and subjectivity, knowledge
The concepts that guided Taft's thinking about adoption were basic
elements of therapeutic culture: personality, adjustment, normal
and abnormal. “For the child-placing agency,” Taft pointed
out in 1919, “all children are abnormal in the sense
that no child is so simple that it is not worth while to become
intimately acquainted with his personality.” Children needed
scrutiny and understanding for adoption to turn out well. So did
their birth parents and
the adopters who volunteered to take them in. The first principle
of therapeutic adoption was that everyone involved needed help to
make it work, whether they knew it or not.
As a major theorist of professional help, Taft explored the difficulties
of helping roles and the possibilities of helping relationships.
Therapeutic interpretation and intervention were the antithesis
of blame, Taft believed. She urged her colleagues to abandon moralistic
notions about illegitimacy
and outdated anxieties about “feeble-minded”
children. All the people involved in adoption deserved to be
active participants in the placement process. Even babies and very
young children could become agents of their own growth rather than
victims, if only given the chance.
Taft believed that adoption could bring love and belonging as well
as pain and separation. But adoptive kinship would always substitute
for natural kinship, based on blood. “We feel very much like
a family,” wrote Taft to a colleague in 1923, after five-year-old
Martha arrived in her family, “and some times wonder whether
we are going to live through it.” “No one who is not
willfully deluded would maintain that the experiences of adoption
can take the place of the actual bearing and rearing of an own child,”
she added in 1929. Throughout its modern history, fervent advocates
of adoption believed that professional management could and should
make adoption safer and happier. But even reformers like Taft conceded
that adoption was different. It was not as real as the real thing.