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Frances Feldman

Social Worker
1912 – 2008
by Marilyn Flynn

Social worker Frances Feldman (1912 – 2008).

Courtesy of the University of Southern California School of Social Work.

Frances Lomas Feldman was born in Philadelphia on December 3, 1912 to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. The youngest of six children, she moved with her family to Los Angeles when she was eight years old, and remained a lifelong Angelino.

She entered the University of Southern California in 1931, ran a laundry service to finance her tuition, and graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in 1935 – the same year she married Albert Feldman, a research chemist. She returned to USC three years later and completed work for her Master's Degree in Social Work in 1940. By that time, she had convinced her husband that social work was a captivating profession. He abandoned his laboratory and became a social worker himself, eventually serving as deputy director of the USC Andrus Gerontology Center, a position he held until death in 1975.

For the first 15 years of her career, Frances Feldman worked in public and private social agencies as a caseworker and administrator. She was remembered for establishing a standard of responsiveness to families that protected human dignity and strengthened the potential of those who sought aid. She was largely responsible for the county's decision to require the hiring of professional social workers as the primary front-line personnel in local public assistance and child welfare programs. Even in this early period, she demonstrated a capacity for leadership, a dedication to the highest standards of social work, and a spirit of quiet persistence that were soon recognized as hallmarks of her character.

In 1954, she was invited to join the faculty of the University of Southern California School of Social Work, where she remained as professor and professor emerita until her death in 2008 – over 45 years. She made significant contributions to new curriculum in the areas of social welfare history, policy, and administration and taught at both the MSE and PhD levels. She mentored the first Chinese American woman to receive a PhD from the University of Southern California, only one of her many life-changing engagements with students. In fact, her ability to convey deep personal interest in colleagues and students created a large, enduring network of relationships that brought throngs to her home for holiday celebrations and crowds to academic groups she sponsored. She was irresistible.

Frances Feldman's contributions to scholarship and society were exceptional largely because she was able to advance knowledge in her field of interest at the same time that she organized and influenced the development of institutions and programs. This is a rare combination of talents in an academic. She wrote 10 books and numerous journal articles on the social and psychological meanings of work and life. She conducted landmark research that revealed the discriminatory treatment of cancer survivors in the workplace, influencing legislative reform in states across the country. She was the impetus behind Consumer Credit Counselors, which has grown today to a network of 350 nationwide centers. She was responsible for development of the Work and Life graduate concentration (then called "industrial social work") in the USC School of Social Work – the first in the West.

She helped shape the University of Southern California in important ways. She became the first President of a reorganized Faculty Senate in 1974, then Chair of the President's Advisory Council, and led numerous key university committees on such topics as student assistance, university internationalization, and employee benefits. Well in advance of her time, she recognized that the workplace environment for faculty in a research-oriented institution must be shaped by humane policies, which gave faculty a clear voice in faculty in university affairs. She applied the themes of the Civil Rights movement that swirled throughout the 1960s and 1970s to expand concern for faculty development at USC. She was a university citizen in its truest sense.

Although deeply devoted to the Los Angeles community and the University of Southern California, Frances Feldman was not parochial. In fact, she traveled to more than 200 countries and was one of the few Westerners to visit mainland China in the 1960s. She was adventurous, bringing back tales of encounters with alligators and snakes, sled dog rides, and storms at sea. She was always a great raconteur, bringing alive her varied meetings with scholars, families, merchants, travel agents, and a host of others. It added to the fascination that others felt in her presence and reflected the rich imagination that made her scholarship so readable and appealing.

She retired from USC in 1982, but some of her most important work lay ahead. As Los Angeles modernized and expanded at an exponential rate, Feldman observed the eclipse of older social agencies and the fading of memories. She organized a group of volunteers from universities and the community who were charged with the task of preserving priceless records and conducting interviews with social welfare leaders across the State of California, particularly in Los Angeles. In this way, she facilitated the creation of the California Social Welfare Archives, now based in the USC School of Social Work and housed in the USC Library. These archives are one of only two in the nation that are dedicated repositories for the history of social work and social welfare. She was involved in every aspect of the Archives' work, chairing its Steering Committee, conducting interviews, identifying and collecting agency records, and building financial resources.

Frances Feldman's life and work are a testimony to the highest standards of social work scholarship. They reflect compassion, systematic understanding, and relentless curiosity. A pioneering spirit, personally and intellectually, she changed the world she lived in and left indelible memories with all who knew her.


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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Frances Feldman, 1912 - 2008." (Viewed on March 5, 2024) <http://jwa.org/weremember/feldman-frances>.