Julia Clifford Lathrop (1858-1932): First Chief of the Children’s Bureau and Advocate for Enactment of the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act of 1921
Julia Lathrop was born in Rockford, Illinois in 1858. Her father William was a successful Republican politician who helped establish the Republican Party. He served in the state legislature and was elected to Congress in 1876. Julia’s mother, Sarah Adeline (nee Potter), was an active abolitionist and suffragette, and devoted much of her time to church and community activities in Rockford. Julia was the oldest of five siblings.
From 1876-1877, Julia attended the Rockford Female Seminary after which she transferred to Vassar College where she received her degree in 1880. Julia returned home to Rockford, and became her father’s personal secretary and law assistant, in addition to working for two other firms. Her life changed dramatically when, in the winter of 1888-1889, Ellen Gates Starr and Jane Addams traveled to Rockford Seminary, their alma mater, to promote Hull House settlement in Chicago to the students and the community. Inspired by their presentation, Lathrop, at the age of 32, joined the residents of Hull-House in 1890.
Julia Lathrop quickly became involved in Hull-House activities including being a volunteer visitor for the Cook County Charities. She was the first resident of Hull-House to receive a state position, appointed by the Governor to the Illinois Board of Charities. In her work with the board, Lathrop visited many facilities in and around Chicago, that collectively housed people who were mentally ill, aged, sick, or disabled. She advocated that separate facilities should be established that would attend to these specific groups. In her various roles, Lathrop witnessed official indifference to human needs and developed a lasting conviction about the importance of competent and honest public officials.
When the Childrens Bureau was formally created in 1912, President William Howard Taft appointed Lathrop as Chief, the first woman bureau chief in the federal government. She brought to the position her experiences and contacts from 22 years as a resident of Hull-House. As chief of the Children’s Bureau, Lathrop made issues like child labor laws and juvenile delinquency ones of extreme importance. During its first two years of existence, the bureau produced and distributed free pamphlets on the health needs of pregnant women and the care of infants. She resigned from the position in 1922, and moved back to Rockford, IL.
In her retirement, Lathrop became president of the Illinois League of Women Voters. She also joined as a charter member of the National Committee of Mental Illness, trying to dispel the myth of mental illness as a sign of moral defect. Through the efforts of Lathrop and others, the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act of 1921 was realized. It was the first federally funded social welfare measure in the United States. Sponsored by Texas Senator Morris Sheppard and Iowa Congressman Horace Towner, the law allowed the distribution of federal matching grants to the states for prenatal and child health clinics, information on nutrition and hygiene, midwife training, and visiting nurses for pregnant women and new mothers. It did not provide any financial aid or medical care. Until her death in 1932, Julia Lathrop also fought against the capital punishment of juveniles.