• Dec 2011/Jan 2012
  • Vol. 12, No. 9

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Centennial Series: The Women's Movement in the Progressive Era

This is the sixth article in our Centennial Series, as we count down to the Children's Bureau's 100th anniversary in April 2012. These articles address some of the social issues, practices, and policies at the turn of the last century that laid the groundwork for the creation of the Children's Bureau.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, domesticity defined American women's lives. They were expected to maintain the homes to which they had no legal claim, relinquish earned wages to their husbands, and rear the children. Eager to look beyond their home life and gain power and authority within their communities, women, as early as 1830, formed social organizations known as women's clubs. These groups, consisting mostly of middle-class homemakers, centered on protecting mothers and children, explored all issues related to health and welfare, and drove social change (Tucker, 2004).

The Progressive Era's maternal reform movement was referred to as domestic politics. Women began to realize they could take part in politics, become activists who championed change, and still be good mothers to their children (Lindenmeyer, 1997). The common thread through each of the clubs and their missions was the focus on moral issues.

The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), formed in 1874, was established after a group of women recognized the heightened risk of domestic abuse and violence after men's alcohol consumption. They rebelled against saloon owners in Ohio, New York, and other States, and their revolt temporarily shut down thousands of saloons. By 1901, every State had implemented a public school program informing children of the dangers of alcohol. The WTCU was widely recognized as one of the most influential women's groups of the time, recording some 150,000 members (National Women's History Museum, n.d.).

In 1897, Alice McLellan Birney and Phoebe Apperson Hearst founded the National Congress of Mothers (Parent Teacher Association, n.d.)—which would later become the National Parent Teacher Association—that spearheaded the early well-baby campaigns. As part of these campaigns, free wellness evaluations by health care professionals were offered in the hopes of combating the nation's high rate of infant mortality (Lindenmeyer, 1997). The National Congress of Women believed mothers were both responsible for and capable of eradicating the threats to the safety and well-being of their children (Parent Teacher Association).

Women's clubs and their campaigns promoted several social reforms under the name of "social housekeeping" that later led to:

  • Programs to improve maternal and infant health
  • Kindergarten classes
  • Shorter work days and safer working conditions for women
  • The Pure Food and Drug Act

In 1905, Florence Kelley published Some Ethical Gains through Legislation, which proposed the creation of a Federal commission composed of health-care professionals and social workers concerned with the mental and physical conditions of children. She suggested the group focus its efforts on a birth registration, infant mortality, child labor, and other issues regarding child welfare. Kelley and her associate, Lillian Wald, worked with the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) to organize a national effort calling for the creation of a Federal bureau. The NCLC then called upon other groups to write persuasive letters to help promote the creation of the Children's Bureau, including the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the National Congress of Mothers, Daughters of the American Revolution, and the National Consumers' Leagues (Lindenmeyer, 1997). A victory was won when the Children's Bureau was founded in 1912 and Julia Lathrop was appointed head of the Bureau by President Taft.

Lathrop had been an active member of the Chicago Women's Club and often spoke to women's organizations on behalf of children. Jane Addams, a close friend of Lathrop's, said Lathrop "learned to explore women's organizations for that moral enthusiasm which she constantly needed to back her official undertakings" (Addams, 1935).

The Progressive Era's maternal reform movement proved that women could be stewards of political and social change. The voluntary women's organizations gave women a united voice in a male-dominated world, provided support for its members, and helped secure social reforms still in effect today. 

Adams, J. (1935) My friend, Julia Lathrop. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Costin, L. (1983). Two sisters for social justice, a biography of Grace and Edith Abbott. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Lindenmeyer, K. (1997). A Right to childhood, the U.S. Children's Bureau and child welfare, 1912-46. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

National Women's History Museum (n.d.). Retrieved 10 October, 2011, from http://www.nwhm.org

Parent Teacher Association. (n.d.). Retrieved 28 October, 2011, from http://www.pta.org/1170.htm

Tucker, J. S. (2004). Another mothers' movement, 1890 to 1920, the role of women's voluntary organizations in Progressive Era social reform. The Mothers Movement Online. Retrieved 11 October, 2011, from http://www.mothersmovement.org/features/maternal_movement/print.html

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