10. “America’s First Official Mother”: Julia Lathrop
Born in Rockford, Illinois, Julia Lathrop’s father was a personal friend of Illinois Representative Abraham Lincoln. Born in 1858, Julia came of age during the devastation of the American Civil War. She went on to earn a degree at Vassar College and in 1890 she arrived at Chicago’s Hull-House to put her education to work. Immersing herself in community research, she interviewed mothers in the neighborhood to see what services they wanted to make their lives better. Through her interactions with poor immigrant laborers, she saw first hand the problems that excessively long hours working in factories for low wages did to these families.
Lathrop was appointed to the Illinois State Board of Charities in 1893. In this role she advocated for the standardized training of social workers. Working to improved the lives of the poor laborers required more than simply offering them food and clothing. The public perception of the American worker had to be changed so that scientific ways could be enacted to prevent infant mortality, childhood deaths, maternal morbidity, neglect, and juvenile delinquency. In 1912, President William Taft appointed Julia to the newly created Children’s Bureau.
Under her leadership, the Children’s Bureau advocated for the needs of mothers. Working 14-16 hours per day in a factory limited the time that mothers could care for their children. The Children’s Bureau advocated for a federally funded insurance plan that would provide monetary assistance to working pregnant women, a maternity leave, and support for the care of their children when they returned to work.
When Julia Lathrop became the head of a federal agency in 1912, she was not permitted to vote simply because she was a woman. Throughout her life she advocated for the rights of women to decided their own fates instead of being forced into marriages to ensure financial stability. She was also a staunch supporter of removing juveniles from the current judicial system proclaiming that a child that committed a crime of theft should not be imprisoned with a man convicted of murder.
Lathrop retired in 1922 from the Children’s Bureau. She continued to advocate for reforms for children and mothers and became active in the Illinois chapter of the League of Women Voters. She died in April 1932 and is buried in Rockford, Illinois. The Julia C. Lathrop public housing complex in Chicago was named in her honor when it was built in 1938.