Fighting for social reform
Born into a wealthy family with political influence, Julia Clifford Lathrop, Vassar class of 1880, dedicated her life to reform movements concerning women, children, the poor, and the mentally and physically ill, making her an important icon of the Progressive movement. After graduating from Vassar, she studied law on her own while working for her father's law firm. But in 1890, she left her hometown of Rockford and went to Chicago to join Hull House, a social service settlement, where she lived and worked for 22 years.
In 1893, she was appointed to the Illinois Board of Charities in 1893. During her term, she researched the care of the mentally ill, elderly, sick, and disabled in local institutions in and around Chicago in an effort to improve conditions. After visiting similar institutions abroad, she advocated reforms such as the separation of patients who required different types of care and the appointment of female doctors for patients who were women. In 1899 she lead a campaign for the world's first juvenile court, which became located in Cook County, Illinois, and in 1908 she helped form the Immigrants' Protective League.
From 1903-04, she assisted Graham Taylor in the organization of the Chicago Institute of Social Science (which at the time was the second school of social work in the country), where she later volunteered as a researcher and lecturer. She served on the school's board of trustees until it became the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration in 1920.
In 1912, President William Howard Taft appointed Lathrop the first chief of the newly created U.S. Children's Bureau of the Department of Commerce and Labor, making her the first woman to head a federal bureau, appointed by the president and given the consent of Senate. In this position, she took on issues including juvenile delinquency, child labor, mothers' pensions, the treatment of the mentally retarded, as well as infant mortality which resulted in the creation of a uniform birth registration process. She also campaigned for the passage of the 1921 Sheppard-Towner Act, which gave federal aid to states providing health care to mothers and their dependent children.
For the rest of her life she continued working by giving lectures on public policy issues, submitting articles to periodicals, and becoming involved in many other public service organizations.
Reformer Julia Clifford Lathrop, August 3, 2006
Investor's Business Weekly