Sample: Julia Lathrop

Sampled below is the Series Editor’s Forward and Introduction from Julia Lathrop: Social Service and Progressive Government by Miriam Cohen.

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Table of Contents


Series Editor’s Foreword


1 Childhood and Education at Vassar: Old Traditions and New Paths

2 “J. Lathrop’s Here!” Single Womanhood and a New Life at Hull House

3 Social Research and Progressive Government

4 Juvenile Justice, Immigrant Aid

5 “Chief”

6 Saving Children, Helping Mothers

7 The Making of the Maternity and Infancy Act, 1921

8 Retirement and Keeping On


Primary Sources
Study Questions

Series Editor’s Foreword

Series Editor’s Foreword

Beginning in the 1890s a group of determined Americans began to search for solutions to the problems of their newly industrialized nation. Rather than give in to pessimism, they decided to face the issues raised by mass immigration, urban poverty, shocking labor conditions, and the dangers to consumers caused by unregulated industries. These women and men were true activists; they did not simply protest—they proposed programs and policies that would improve the conditions they found unacceptable. No one more fully embodied the spirit of these reformers during the Progressive Era than Julia Lathrop. Lathrop devoted her life to child welfare, women’s rights, educational reform, the creation of a juvenile justice system, the professionalization of social work, and the rights of immigrants—and in the process she became the first woman appointed to the Illinois State Board of Charities and the first woman to head a federal agency. Small wonder that when she died in 1932 she was remembered as “one of the most useful women in the whole country.”

In telling the story of Lathrop’s life and accomplishments, Miriam Cohen draws a vivid portrait of the Progressive Era and of the challenges female reformers faced as they entered the public sphere. Women like Lathrop, Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, and Lillian Wald were harshly criticized for undermining the traditional role of woman as wife and mother. To counter claims that they were “unwomanly,” these women developed the concept of “maternalist politics,” arguing that they were simply fulfilling their womanly duties in the larger arena of the community. But if maternalism allowed them to lobby for legislation, head up agencies, and expand women’s higher education, it also diminished their use of a claim to equality as an individual right for all. As Cohen notes, today’s American women would reject Lathrop’s reliance on traditional gender roles to justify voting rights for women.

One of the many strengths of Cohen’s book is that she resists any temptation to idealize Lathrop or the progressive women who were her allies. Although she clearly admires Julia Lathrop, she acknowledges that women reformers of the era shared with other privileged white women an often unthinking but damaging racism and social elitism. This can be seen, Cohen points out, in the suffragist argument that giving the vote to educated, native-born women would counterbalance the right to vote given to immigrant men.

In this carefully researched and gracefully written book Cohen has drawn a rich and complex portrait of a remarkable American woman. In the process she has provided a fresh look at the critical role that women like Julia Lathrop played in an era of progressive reform.

-Carol Berkin



When Julia Lathrop died in 1932 at the age of seventy-four, newspapers around the country carried the news, many with banner headlines. That the press would pay attention to her death was not surprising. In 1912, when President William Howard Taft appointed her as the first chief of the US Children’s Bureau created to promote child welfare, Lathrop became the first woman to head a federal agency. Under her leadership the Bureau investigated infant mortality and child labor, provided advice on infant and child care to women across the country, and successfully lobbied for federal legislation providing prenatal and early infant care.

A leading advocate for children and for women’s rights, Lathrop began her career as a social reformer in the poor neighborhoods of Chicago but soon became active throughout Illinois. In 1893 Governor Peter Altgeld appointed her as the first woman on the State Board of Charities. As a member of the board, she conducted statewide investigations of the almshouses for the poor and the “insane” asylums and then pushed vigorously to upgrade the institutions and their staffs. In Chicago she also worked on behalf of immigrant protection and the establishment of America’s first juvenile court system. If that were not enough, during her Chicago years she helped found one of America’s first schools of social work. In 1922, after her retirement from the Children’s Bureau, she a became a leader in the Illinois and the National League of Women Voters; she also worked for the League of Nations on behalf of children’s welfare around the world. Jane Addams, the most celebrated female reformer of her day, founder and director of Chicago’s famous social settlement, Hull House, where Lathrop lived for two decades, hailed her close friend and colleague as “One of the most useful women in the whole country.”[1]

In devoting her life to child welfare, women’s rights, social research, and building the welfare state, Lathrop was part of a movement of American politicians, journalists, professionals, and volunteers who mobilized at the end of the nineteenth century to deal with a variety of social problems associated with industrialization. Woman activists like Lathrop, mainly from middling and prosperous social backgrounds, emphasized the special contribution that women could make in tackling these problems. With issues of public health and safety, child labor, and women working under dangerous conditions so prominent at the turn of the twentieth century, who better than women to address them?

Focusing on issues that appealed to women as wives and mothers and promoting the notion that women were particularly good at addressing such concerns, many female activists, including Lathrop, practiced what many women’s historians call maternalist politics. According to historian Molly Ladd-Taylor, all maternalists believed there was “a uniquely feminine value system based on care and nurturance.” They also believed that women across class and race were united “by their common capacity for motherhood and therefore shared a responsibility for all the world’s children.” By emphasizing that the traditional concerns associated with women as mothers belonged in the civic sphere, the maternalists collapsed the separation between the public world of work and politics and the private world of women and the family. All maternalists, however, did not embrace the same political perspective. Ladd-Taylor terms those maternalists active in the National Congress of Mothers (NCM) as “sentimental maternalists” These women believed that that marriage and childrearing were the “highest calling” for every woman; the organization never supported suffrage.

Lathrop and her colleagues at Hull House and in the Children’s Bureau also believed that women shared special characteristics as mothers or potential mothers. When Addams referred to Lathrop as one of America’s “most useful” women rather than one of America’s greatest women or most accomplished women, she reflected traditional notions about women as servants to others. Just as women had traditionally served their families, women had a special affinity for social service to the broader community as well. Not surprisingly, in praising Lathrop in life as well as at her death, people referred to her as a “great public servant.”[2] Although famous men could also be termed great public servants, they enjoyed such acclamations as “great leaders” or “accomplished persons” much more often than women.

Historian Sonya Michel tells us that “the relationship between maternalism and feminism has . . . vexed feminist scholars from the outset.” Even as Lathrop and her closest colleagues, first at Hull House and then at the Children’s Bureau, made use of traditional notions of gender, they, unlike the sentimental maternalists, also pushed at its boundaries. These “progressive maternalists,” to use Ladd-Taylor’s term, were active suffragists and believed that women could legitimately choose between career and marriage. Female social reformers between 1890 and World War I created new spaces for themselves in local and then national government even before they had the right to vote. They carved out new opportunities for paid labor in professions like social work and public health. Moreover, the progressive maternalists believed “that while women had a natural affinity for issues that involved women and families, they insisted that their ‘claim to authority’ was based on “professional expertise.”

The progressive maternalists also stressed the special needs of poor women and children to build support for America’s early social welfare state. In a country with a deep suspicion of strong government, these women appealed to society’s sympathy for children in arguing on behalf of new social programs. As pragmatic activists, they adopted more than one strategy to achieve reforms. Like men, their politics were multifaceted and shaped by a variety of concerns. To achieve their ends, they worked with various reform coalitions and tailored their rhetoric to strengthen those coalitions. In promoting suffrage they often emphasized that the vote was necessary to address the problems of industrialization more generally as well as the special needs of women and children, but they also argued that women, as citizens, had the right to vote.

Other historians have termed these reformers “social justice feminists” because they prioritized the problems of poverty, sweated labor, and the growing inequality between the rich and poor while promoting an “expanded view of women’s citizenship.” Linda Gordon terms the women “social feminists” because of their belief in women’s rights, including suffrage, and their commitment to social welfare. “Some of the social feminists called themselves feminist and some did not but all believed that women’s [political] power was vital to improve the world.”[3]

Lathrop’s career, which involved leadership in so many facets of public life, illustrates how women worked both within the bounds of traditional norms about gender as well as pushed against them. A social reformer and a social scientist, she pushed for women’s political rights and promoted women’s education. Most especially she took on a new role in the federal government and used her power to provide professional jobs for other women as well. Throughout the book Lathrop and her close associates will be referred to as progressive maternalists or social feminists.

Lathrop’s personal style also combined traditional traits of womanhood with a style that was anything but traditionally feminine. Those who knew and worked with her often commented on her brilliance, her quick wit, the way in which she balanced her “ladylike Victorian persona,” her poise, her tact—indeed her pragmatism—with a dogged determination.[4] When she retired from the Bureau in 1921 noted progressive journalist William Chenery wrote about Lathrop’s “remarkable personality, her flashing irony and her human understanding. Few residents of Washington,” he concluded, “are better liked. Even reactionary senators who did not understand what she was driving at and who had no taste for what they understood, count Miss Lathrop among their honored friends.”[5]

Dr. Alice Hamilton, America’s founder of industrial medicine, noted that her close friend from their Hull House days did not shrink from a fight, whereas “I have always hated conflict of any kind, . . . and would shirk unpleasantness.” For Lathrop “harmony and peaceful relations with one’s adversary were not in and of themselves of value, only if they went with a steady pushing what of what one was trying to achieve.” At times, Hamilton wrote, she “remembered Julia Lathrop and forced myself to say unpleasant things which had to be said.”

Lathrop’s modesty also stood out for Hamilton, as it did for so many others. “When I try to describe Julia Lathrop the word that comes first to my mind is ‘disinterested.’ This is a rare quality . . . even in people who are devoting theirs lives to others. Julia Lathrop did not see herself as the center of what she was doing.”[6]

Throughout her adult life Lathrop displayed what we might view as undue humility, even for that era, when much modesty was expected of women. But she also took well-deserved pride in her accomplishments. When, in 1944, Lathrop’s brother William donated her personal papers to Rockford College, he included at least three honorary diplomas, four citations from American colleges and the governments of Poland and Czechoslovakia, one medal, and the scroll from President Taft appointing Julia Lathrop as chief of the Children’s Bureau. Here we see Lathrop preserving important, material evidence of the public recognition bestowed upon her. Yet Lathrop hated to talk about herself and very much underestimated her achievements. In 1929, three years before her death, Lathrop, a graduate of Vassar College in 1880, filled out an alumnae questionnaire that was circulated to class members in preparation for her class’s fiftieth reunion in 1930. Under “Occupational Record” she wrote, “For many years, at intervals a resident at Hull House.” Under “Public Record,” despite her role in leading so many organizations, she listed only that she was a “member of the Illinois State Board of Charities for about 13 years” and then “For nine years, Chief US Children’s Bureau in the Dept. of Labor, a presidential appointment.” Under “Literary Record,” which asked her to list articles; papers, written or edited; and contributions to the press or to periodicals, this author of hundreds of Bureau publications, many social investigations, and popular and professional magazine articles wrote, “No literary record. I have of course in connection with work . . . written many brief articles. Few are preserved”—which, thankfully, is not true—“and few deserved to be preserved.” Under “Other Creative or Productive Work” she answered only, “I have spoken much on the subjects in the social [work] with which I have been concerned.”[7]

Lathrop’s approach to her own accomplishments reflected her individual personality and the society’s contradictory impulses about what constituted proper womanhood. Lathrop also held contradictory attitudes about class and race. Whether she was working in poor Chicago neighborhoods or as head of the Children’s Bureau as she worked to improve the conditions for poor mothers across the country, Lathrop, like many of her friends and colleagues, sometimes showed elitism about what constitutes proper family life. These activists could be patronizing when it came to immigrants; their attitude toward African Americans and American Indians could be even more troubling, often steeped in assumptions about the superiority of all European cultures. But more so than most reformers of the day, Lathrop had an appreciation for the real problems faced by the poor, especially poor mothers. Convinced that poverty and inadequate services, not character defects, were responsible for disease, malnutrition, delinquency, and premature death among poor families, Lathrop worked throughout her life to prove it to others. Although her views about race were problematic, she was one of the few white reformers who spoke out throughout her career against racial discrimination, working with such civil rights leaders as W. E. B. Dubois and the National Association of Colored Women; in her later years she championed efforts to improve the lives of Native Americans.

The story of Julia Lathrop is the story of someone who, like all of us, is shaped by the historical context of her times but who also pushed successfully against some of its limitations.


[1] “Julia Lathrop, Child Welfare Leader, Dies,” Chicago Herald and Examiner, April 16, 1932; “Julia Lathrop Dies, Aged 74,” Youngstown Ohio Vindicator, April 16, 1932 (one of many papers that shortened Addams’s description); Julia Lathrop Papers (JLP), Rockford College, Folder—1932, Her Death, News Clippings, Tributes, Memorials, Rockford College Library, Rockford, Illinois, Reel 5, microfilm copy in the Vassar College Special Collections (VCSC), Vassar College Library, Poughkeepsie, NY.
[2] William Chenery, “A Great Public Servant,” typescript taken from The Survey, September 1, 1921, JLP, Folder-Correspondence 1921, Reel 3; Jane Addams, “A Great Public Servant, Julia C. Lathrop,” Social Service Review 1, no. 2 (June 1932): 280.
[3] Molly Ladd-Taylor, “Toward Defining Maternalism in U.S. History,” Journal of Women’s History 5, no. 2 (Fall 1993): 110, 111; Sonya Michel, “Maternalism and Beyond,” in Maternalism Reconsidered: Motherhood, Welfare and Social Policy in the Twentieth Century, ed. Marian van der Klein, Rebecca Jo Plant, Nichole Sanders, and Lori R. Weintrob (New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2014), 27; Kathryn Kish Sklar, Anja Schüler, and Susan Strasser, “Introduction: A Transatlantic Dialogue,” in Social Justice Feminists in the United States and Germany, ed. Kathryn Kish Sklar, Anja Schüler, and Susan Strasser (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 5; Linda Gordon, Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Women and the History of Welfare (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 31, 106. An early and important study of social feminism is J. Stanley Lemons, The Woman Citizen: Social Feminism in the 1920s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973).
[4] Robyn Muncy, Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890–1935 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 49.
[5] Chenery, “A Great Public Servant,” 3.
[6] Alice Hamilton, Exploring the Dangerous Trades: The Autobiography of Alice Hamilton (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1943), 63.
[7] Biographical Records Questionnaire of the Alumnae Office, filled out and signed by Julia C. Lathrop, December 19, 1929, AAVC Files, Box 4, VCSC. See also Primary Source 1.

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Julia Lathrop

Social Service and Progressive Government

by Miriam Cohen


Copyright © 2017 by WESTVIEW PRESS

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