The Welfare Pioneer

This year, women in Illinois are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the expansion of their voting rights.  Recall that Illinois women could only vote in school elections in a segregated ballot box, a law that was passed in 1891.  After years of lobbying in Springfield, the suffragists rejoiced when the General Assembly passed the Illinois Municipal Voting Act.  The bill was signed by Governor Dunne on June 26, 1913.  This act allowed women to vote for Presidential electors and for all local Illinois offices not specified by the Constitution.  However, women could still not vote for state representative, congressman, or governor, and they were still required to have segregated ballots and ballot boxes.  The voting act was radical in that it was the first of its kind to be passed east of the Mississippi River.

Julia Lathrop

Julia Lathrop, a Rockford native, is considered a welfare pioneer.  She was a founding member of the League of Women Voters of Greater Rockford in 1922 and was its first vice president.  Not only did she believe in equal rights for women, but she advocated for the mentally ill, immigrants, social reform, and child welfare.

Born in 1858, Julia attended Rockford Female Seminary (now Rockford College, soon to be Rockford University) and completed her education at Vassar College.  Upon graduation in 1880, she went to work for her father, William Lathrop, a lawyer and congressman, as a secretary and assistant.

Julia worked at Hull House in Chicago with fellow Rockford College attendee Jane Addams.  She was a resident there when it first opened in 1889.  She kept records on the conditions of insane asylums and poorhouses.  She also served on the first Illinois State Board of Charities.

Between 1912 and 1921, Julia was the chief of the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor.  She was the first woman to head a U.S. bureau.  In 1925, she was appointed to the Child Welfare Committee of the League of Nations.   Julia passed away in 1932.

Children's Year Official Seal

Children’s Year Official Seal

From April 6, 1918 to April 6, 1919, the Children’s Bureau ran a national campaign to raise awareness about child welfare and persuade state governments to set up their own programs.  This campaign, known as the Children’s Year, held the slogan “Save 100,000 Babies.”  The Bureau sought to reduce the infant mortality rate by one third.  The primary goals of the campaign were to record the weight and measurements of infants and toddlers, encourage healthy play and recreation, and emphasize the importance of schooling.  Child labor was a concern of the Bureau, and keeping children in school meant that they were not a part of the workforce.  The year-long campaign concluded with new standards for the health, education, and work of children.

For an in-depth look at the Children’s Year campaign, follow this link to the Children’s Bureau’s 1920 publication “Children’s Year: A brief summary for work done and suggestions for follow-up work.”


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