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Document Correspondence Between Julia C. Lathrop, Chief of the Children's Bureau, and a Working-Class Woman, 1914-1915 EmUy K. Abel The Children's Bureau was the most striking example of a Progressive institution created and led by women. It was established in 1912 by Lillian WaId, founder of Henry Street Settlement, and Florence Kelley, who had directed numerous campaigns for children's welfare. In its first decade, the Bureau could point with pride to a number of notable achievements . It published several major studies of the causes of infant mortality, launched a drive for birth registration, enforced a federal child-labor law, organized a series of national conferences on maternal and child health, and spearheaded a successful campaign to pass the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act.1 From the beginning, the education of mothers had a prominent place on the agency's agenda. The centerpiece of the Bureau's health education program was the publication of Prenatal Care in 1913 and Infant Care in 1914.2 Geared toward the "average" reader, the booklets helped to popularize the theories of leading physicians.3 Although advice literature previously had been available to mothers, none had enjoyed the remarkable success of the Children's Bureau publications.4 The first 30,000 copies of Prenatal Care quickly sold out.5 Almost 1,500,000 copies of Infant Care were distributed between 1914 and 1921.6 In addition, thousands of women from a wide variety of backgrounds asked the Bureau for additional information . In one year alone, it received 125,000 letters.7 Julia Lathrop was the first chief of the Bureau. A former Hull House resident, she brought the ideal of the settlement movement to public life. Believing in the importance of close personal relationships between members of different classes, she responded to many letter writers with the warmth and sympathy of a friend rather than the distance and dispassion of a government official.8 Mrs. C. was one of several women on whom Lathrop lavished special attention. A native-born white working-class woman, Mrs. C was struggling to adjust to a rapidly industrializing and urbanizing society. Although her husband had steady employment as a railroad laborer, his income—like that of many working men at the time—was insufficient to support the family. Mrs. C. hated her sense of social degradation even more © 1993 Journal of Women? History, Vol. s No. ι (Spring)_________________ 80 Journal of Women's History Spring than her material deprivation. The well-to-do, she noted, acted as if the poor had "no feelings." She had assumed that the new scientific information on child care was available only to the affluent and was delighted to receive both Prenatal Care and Infant Care. Nevertheless, she did not simply surrender control to experts. She rejected Lathrop's suggestion of institutional placement for her son, pointed out that some of the pamphlets' advice was irrelevant to her life, refused to accept the school's assessment of her children, and concluded that a doctor who recommended surgery for her son "was after the money." In addition to rendering advice, Lathrop personalized her activities on Mrs. Cs behalf, first trying to locate a "friendly visitor" for her, then sending her a box of candy, and finally pressuring officials at the Illinois Central Railroad to promote her husband. We can only speculate about why Lathrop bestowed such extraordinary care on Mrs. C. Other correspondents also were poor and had to contend with sick and disabled children, callous teachers, and untrustworthy doctors. But Mrs. C. wrote in an unusually open way; the unguarded quality of her letters may have suggested that she would welcome additional contact and assistance. By responding with great earnestness to the government publications on prenatal and child care, Mrs. C. validated Lathrop's work. In addition, Mrs. G's family situation illustrated common gender relationships. She suggested that her husband's character deficiencies contributed to the family's economic problems. Because he did not drink and was not "dissipated in any way," assistance from the Children's Bureau could not be construed as rewarding vice. Nevertheless, he neither shared her aspirations for the children nor took much...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 79-88
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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