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Another Mothers’ Movement, 1890 to 1920

page two

Banding together

By igniting the maternal sentiment of respectable clubwomen, female voluntary groups spearheaded a number of successful reform campaigns in the name of “social housekeeping.” Club leaders recruited volunteers to collect information on target issues (which occasionally required members to visit the workfloors of factories or conduct door-to-door surveys in impoverished neighborhoods). Calls to action were disseminated through a vast network of state and local affiliates, and club members advanced campaigns at the regional level by coordinating public lectures, letter writing campaigns, and petition drives. Maternal activists also harnessed the power of the press by submitting letters and essays decrying the reprehensible conditions afflicting American mothers and children to newspapers and magazines.

By the turn of the 20th century, women had organized to promote the abolition of prostitution; women’s suffrage (achieved in 1920); temperance and prohibition (national prohibition was enacted in 1919, and later repealed); dress reform; juvenile justice and prison reform; equal wages, shorter work hours and occupational safety for working women (the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau was formed in 1920); pensions for widowed and destitute mothers (passed into law in 40 states between 1911 and 1920); a centralized program to improve maternal and infant health (resulting in the creation of the U.S. Children’s Bureau in 1912 and the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921); the Pure Food and Drug Act (1911); child labor reform; compulsory school attendance; civil service reform; public kindergartens, urban playgrounds; and free public libraries.

The ranks of woman who rallied behind the maternalist agenda originated from two distinct sectors. Middle- and upper-class married women were frequently mobilized through membership in national women’s associations. Organizations such as the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the National Congress of Mothers (which became the Parent-Teacher Association in 1908), and the National Consumer’s League were at the forefront of Progressive era reform movements. Women of color formed the National Colored Women’s Association in 1896 to support reform related to race issues. By 1900, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was represented in every state, with more than 168,000 dues-paying members and over 7,000 local associations; in 1911, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs had over one million members.

A second group of reformers consisted of unmarried professional women with connections to the settlement house movement. Settlement houses were residential centers established and staffed by educated, middle-class men and women to provide outreach and social services to the urban poor. Hull House in Chicago (founded 1889) was one of the largest and most successful settlement projects in the U.S., and many women who trained at there—including Jane Addams, Florence Kelly and Grace Abbott—were prominent in the maternalist reform and suffrage movements.

Although clubwomen and social work professionals led dramatically different lives, they shared a core belief that women were naturally endowed with a special aptitude for attending to the welfare of others. While married women applied this ideology to their private obligations, settlement women used it to justify a dedication to public service. The two groups ultimately formed a powerful coalition committed to resolving some of the most pressing social problems of the time.

The strength of this relationship is evident in the interaction between the U.S. Children’s Bureau and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in the early decades of the twentieth century. When Julia Lathrop (who began her career in public service at Hull House in the early 1890s) was appointed to head the newly formed U.S. Children’s Bureau in 1912, her primary mission was to track and reduce infant mortality. Since municipal records were known to be woefully inaccurate in reporting either live births or infant deaths, Lathrop launched a nation-wide birth registration campaign. One of her first official acts was to enlist members of GFWC in the task of recording every birth in their home communities and reconciling the findings with local officials. Clubwomen were also charged with organizing public events in honor of the Children Bureau’s National Baby Week. Due to their zeal for protecting the health and welfare of children, maternalist reformers were referred to (and sometimes ridiculed) as “baby savers” by the popular press.

the power and problems of maternalist reform

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