Julia Lathrop is a puzzling figure, not for what she has done, but for the fact that she is relatively unknown to people in America despite her accomplishments as a social reformer. She was a person who advocated for social causes in favor of those who are the least amongst us in society: women suffrage, an end to child labor laws, the disabled, and assistance to the mentally ill.  Her assistance included operating facilities where they were cared for and sheltered from the cruelty of society, and worst of all the indifference that created so much social strife.

Her origin story began in Rockford, Illinois, as the daughter of a congressmen and a suffragette and abolitionist.  She received degrees from Vassar College in 1880, which is interesting because this was long before women had had the right to vote.  The event that changed her life and guided the direction of her legacy was meeting Jane Addams of the famous Hull House.  Julia joined Hull House in their mission to provide social services in the Chicago area.  During her time at Hull House she volunteered for the Cook County Charities, which spring boarded her into the state appointed position of the Illinois Board of Charities.  In that position, she became attuned to the problems of poverty and the effect it had on society.

In 1912, Julia became the head of the Children’s Bureau under President William Howard Taft.  In that position she focused heavily on child labor laws and juvenile delinquency because of the harmful effects they could have on the future development of children.  The most important public service she provided was issuing free pamphlets to women about pregnancy and child care.  She retired from that position in 1922 after a decade of service in that department.

Her retirement was short-lived because she worked on issues involving women’s suffrage and combating the stigma of mental illness.  As history shows her efforts for women’s suffrage was successful because in 1919 the 19th amendment to the constitution was ratified-giving women the right to vote in elections.  Her most enduring legacy was her involvement in the Sheppard-Towner Maternity Act of 1921.  This was the first federally funded social welfare law passed in the United States; which is significant because the concept of welfare is an anathema to many people.  This law allowed matching grants to states for women’s issues such as health clinics, nutritional information, midwife training, and hygiene.

One thing that Making It to The Finish Line stresses that relates to Julia’s legacy is that it is possible to have an impact on the community without major publicity or attention.  Also caring for the least amongst us is a way to strengthen the community by showing them that they have value to the community.  The information about Julia was found on her biography page at http://www.socialwelfare.library.edu


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