Rose Bernstein: Boston-Area Social Worker

By Christine Cupaiuolo |

This being women’s history month, I’d like to write about women whose names are not well known, but who have left their mark in ways both big and small. I came across the obituary of a Boston-area social worker, Rose Bernstein, whose early advocacy on behalf of single mothers — and her empahsis on the importance of the role of the unmarried father — made her a trailblazer in her field. Bernstein died last month, on Cape Cod, at the age of 98. From the Boston Globe:

Long before unmarried women with babies were described as single moms, clinical social worker Rose Bernstein was on a mission to erase the words “born out of wedlock” from popular use.

“Rose helped to shift the stigma of the ‘out of wedlock’ mother to the concept of helping unmarried mothers and fathers,” said her colleague Catherine Sherry-Paré of Dennis. […]

In the introduction to her 1971 book, “Helping Unmarried Mothers,” Mrs. Bernstein points a finger at social agencies for inflicting lasting emotional damage on single mothers.

“Society sees to it that by action or by implication, a woman who is having a child out of wedlock will come away from the experience with an inferior sense of herself as a mother, whether she keeps her baby or relinquishes him for adoption.”

A New York City native and Cornell grad, Bernstein earned a master’s in education from City College of New York and a master’s in social work at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. She was the social worker for the first Boston Big Sisters organization, and in the 1940s and 1950s she worked at Crittenden Hastings House, a home for unwed mothers, now Crittenden Women’s Union, and for United Community Services.

Bernstein lived in the Boston area until 1971, when her husband retired as professor at the Boston University School of Social Work and the couple moved to Dennis, according to the Globe. There, she continued to work in private practice and as a mentor to social workers. The Boston Herald notes that Bernstein “participated in a number of peace and civil rights demonstrations. She and her husband also co-founded Cape Cod Family and Children Services,” now Cape Cod Human Services.

“Rose could relate to anyone of any age with brilliant intuitiveness, warmth, and generosity of spirit, renewing others by her very presence,” said Sherry-Paré. “She conveyed a great sense of warmth and flair and looked like everyone’s Jewish grandmother.”

Bernstein also volunteered in schools in Dennis and Yarmouth. About a dozen years ago, school officials overreacted to her allowing kindergarteners to climb in her lap, and asked her to stop, fearing it could be interpreted as inappropriate. Bernstein at this time must have been around 85 — woudn’t the main danger be kids climbing on her? — but in any case, her colleagues advised her not to turn away the children. That year, according to the Globe, Benstein was the school district’s volunteer of the year.

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