On this day in 1858 was the birth of Julia Clifford Lathrop, an American social reformer who was the first woman to ever head a U.S. federal bureau, as the head of the U.S. Children’s Bureau. Born to a father who was a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln, and a mother who was an active suffragist, Julia attended the Rockford Female Seminary before transferring to Vassar College, where she developed her own program of study in statistics, sociology, institutional history, and community organization. She worked for some time at her father’s law office studying law herself, before moving to Chicago to join a number of socialist reformer women (including Jane Addams) at Hull House. In the early days of the House, she formed a discussion group called the Plato Club, and worked as a volunteer investigator of relief applicants.
In 1893 she was appointed the first ever female member of the Illinois State Board of Charities; over her time on the board, she was responsible for helping to create reforms such as the removal of the mentally ill from state workhouses, and the appointment of female doctors in state hospitals. In 1912, President Taft gave in to pressure from Progressive women reformers and appointed Julia to be the chief of the newly formed Children’s Bureau. In her nine years there, she worked to guide research into infant mortality, maternal mortality, child labor, mothers’ pensions, juvenile delinquency, and more. She was known during the time as “America’s First Official Mother” (really, Patriarchy? yeesh), and her focus on maternal/child welfare gave conservative women a role in politics for the first time (as they had not been open to such a role in suffrage or women’s rights movements).
Despite her more liberal beliefs, she often towed a more conservative line while in office, mostly because she knew that doing so would avoid controversy and allow her to build public support for her agency and get the work done that she needed. It was for this reason that she continued to make clear her “opinion” that “motherhood was the most important calling in the world”, despite the fact that her very position and leadership relied on her right to a college degree and a job. The public support she garnered allowed her to do things such as support the proposed national health insurance act proposed by the American Association for Labor Legislation in 1917. The act went against the private insurance industry and, in part, provided a provision for weekly cash allocations for pregnant women. Julia argued for the act, stating that U.S. leaders needed to stop blaming high infant mortality on the so-called “ignorance and laziness” of the working and poor class, and realize that they needed to address the poverty that caused such issues. Her statement also included this remark: “Which is the more safe and sane conclusion? That 88 per cent of all these fathers were incorrigibly indolent or below normal mentally, or that sound public economy demands an irreducible minimum living standard to be sustained by a minimum wage and other such expedients as may be developed in a determined effort to give every child a fair chance?”
Unfortunately, the act did not pass, as many politicians and even other staff in her Bureau believed that women (especially those with children) should not work if they were poor; they should only stay at home and care for their children. They didn’t believe the connections she posited between children’s health and things like minimum wage, sanitation systems, or workers’ insurance, and their focus remained on teaching (white) mothers how to care for babies while disregarding the awful, incredibly high mortality rate for children and babies born into families of color. In time, however, that would change. The people who succeeded Julia at the Children’s Bureau formed a unit that created and implemented child welfare policy, which still remains today despite the loss of the agency’s power and influence.
In later years, Julia would go on to join others in calling for a separate court system for children, which later lead to the establishment of juvenile courts; Julia herself helped found the country’s first juvenile court in 1899. In 1904, she helped create and then became president of the Juvenile Psychopathic Institute, studying the physical and mental health of children, and beginning the shift away from the idea that only environment determined a child’s behavior. She was sent in 1918 by President Woodrow Wilson (along with Grace Abbott), to represent the U.S. at an international child welfare conference. Later, after her retired from the Children’s Bureau (in 1922), she became president of the Illinois League of Women Voters, formed the National Committee of Mental Illness, and represented the U.S. at the Child Welfare Committee held by the League of Nations in Switzerland in 1925. She died in April of 1932, at the age of 73; still single, and with no children of her own.