Julia Clifford Lathrop (June 29, 1858 – April 15, 1932), was an American social reformer, a pioneer in the fields of child welfare and public welfare administration. A member of Jane Addams' Hull House social settlement, Lathrop was active in many areas of social reform. Although she had no children of her own, she was a strong advocate for children's rights, leading to her appointment as the first president of the U.S. Children’s Bureau. She was especially concerned with the high rates of infant mortality in the U.S. and spent considerable time documenting numbers and raising public awareness about this issue. Her life was characterized by diligence and concern for the situation of the less fortunate, particularly the mentally ill. Lathrop is remembered as a tireless worker for the rights of the underprivileged, and an intelligent and effective record keeper and administrator, who dedicated her life to the care of the lives of others.
Julia Clifford Lathrop was born on June 29, 1858 in Rockford, Illinois, the first of five children of William Lathrop, a prominent politician who helped establish the Republican Party and served in the state legislature (1856-57) and Congress (1877-79). He considered himself abolitionist and a supporter of women’s rights. Inevitably, he influenced his daughter’s views on social issues.
In 1876, Julia Lathrop enrolled in Rockford Female Seminary where she met Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. After graduating from Vassar College in 1880, she worked in her father's law office for 10 years. During that time her interest in various reform movements grew stronger, until she finally decided to move to Chicago.
In 1890, Lathrop moved to Chicago where she joined Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, Alzina Parsons Stevens, Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott, Florence Kelley, Mary McDowell, Alice Hamilton, Sophonisba Breckinridge, and other social reformers at Hull House. Soon she founded the Hull House Plato Group, a discussion group which met every Sunday afternoon to discuss religious topics and current issues in society. Lathrop quickly became a core member of the Hull House Settlement.
In 1893, Lathrop was appointed as the first ever female member of the Illinois State Board of Charities. She served there until 1909, working on raising the standards of care for the handicapped in state institutions. She introduced reforms such as the appointment of female doctors in state hospitals, and the removal of the insane from the state workhouses. Lathrop was also responsible for establishing, in 1899 in Chicago, the first juvenile court in the world, and setting up a psychiatric clinic for young offenders.
Lathrop became one of the most active members of the Hull House. She participated in the Chicago Women's Club, was a trustee of the Immigrants' Protection League, and a member of the National League of Women Voters.
The women at Hull House were active in the campaign to persuade Congress to pass legislation to protect children. In 1912, President William Taft appointed Lathrop as the first head of the newly created U.S. Children's Bureau in the Department of Labor. She moved to Washington, D.C. Over the next nine years, Lathrop directed research into child labor, infant mortality, mother mortality, juvenile delinquency, mothers' pensions, and illegitimacy. In 1921, she helped pass the Sheppard-Towner Act, which provided federal aid to states to advance care for mothers and their children.
Lathrop left the Children’s Bureau in 1922, and moved to stay with her sister in Rockford, Illinois. She became active in the National Committee of Mental Illness, working on public awareness of mental illness as a medical disorder. In 1925, Lathrop was appointed a member on an advisory team to the Child Welfare Committee established by the League of Nations, and fought against capital punishment for juveniles.
Julia Lathrop died in Rockford, on April 15, 1932.
Julia Lathrop spent her whole life, altogether more than 50 years, as a social activist and reformer, advocating for better quality of life for women, children, immigrants, mentally ill, and many other minority groups in society. One of her most important contributions is the establishment of the U.S. Children’s Bureau, which recognized that children have rights regarding education, the workplace, the court, and in the home.
Lathrop became head of the Children’s Bureau in 1912. Her first mission there was to raise public awareness of infant and maternal mortality. She conducted a series of local studies that collected information on mortality rates in the United States. Lathrop formed volunteer groups of women, who went to the neighborhood and knocked door-to-door to collect the necessary data. The results of the study were devastating—they showed that U.S. had one of the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality among all industrialized countries:
We do not know how many children are born each year or how many die or why they die. We need statistics of nativity and mortality. Homeless and neglected children are going to be better cared for, because we are going to do more for all children as we begin to know more about the problems of childhood in general. (Lathrop, 1912)
Lathrop realized that women and children were dying from causes that could be prevented: unsanitary conditions, contaminated water, and lack of adequate health care. She devised a series of brochures with information for mothers on how to prevent complications during and after pregnancy. She also started educational campaigns to help women learn proper prenatal care and proper nutrition for babies. Her effort resulted in the 1920 Shepherdtowner Maternity and Infancy Act, which became a model for other social welfare laws.
Lathrop also fought for women’s rights to be full-time mothers. She believed that laboring all day for wages prevented women from spending time rearing their children. She advocated government or community support in providing funds that would allow mothers to spend more time at home with their children.
Another item on Lathrop’s agenda was the problem of child labor. This was a rather controversial issue on which Americans at the time were deeply divided. Through her effort, the Federal Child Labor Law was brought in 1916, which regulated children’s work. However, the law was invalidated two years later by the U.S. Supreme Court, and Lathrop’s fight continued.
Lathrop advocated for the establishment of facilities that would separately house people who were mentally ill, sick, aged, or disabled, contrary to the practice used in her time, when one facility would collectively house all those groups.
Lathrop’s social engagement was not without criticism. As well as being a woman working in the traditionally oriented, patriarchal society of the Victorian-era United States, she came under fire for touching the questions of child labor and women’s rights. She was accused of being a Communist supporter who tried to bring communist ideas into the U.S. The most painful criticism however came from other women, who claimed that Lathrop was not competent to advocate for children and mothers, because she herself had never had any children.
Julia Lathrop was an important figure in numerous social reforms, inducing changes like the improvement in the care for the mentally ill, reduction of child labor, raising of the awareness of infant mortality, and many others. Through her efforts, the first juvenile court in the world was established in 1899 in Chicago.
Lathrop was vital in bringing up the issue of keeping the accurate statistical records. She and her volunteer network improved the collection of birth and death records in the U.S. and raised the awareness of the need for keeping those records accurate.
Through her election as the director of the U.S. Children’s Bureau, Lathrop became the first woman on the head of one Federal agency, paving the path for other women to come.
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