Save the Babies: Progressive Women and the Fight for Child Welfare in the United States, 1912-1929

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Date
2021-06-24
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Virginia Tech
Abstract

This project examines two organizations--the Better Babies Bureau and the Children's Bureau--created by Progessive women in the early twentieth century to combat high infant mortality rates, improve prenatal and postnatal care, and better child welfare. The Better Babies Bureau, founded in 1913 by journalists from the Woman's Home Companion magazine, and the Children's Bureau, founded as a federal agency in 1912, used similar campaigns to raise awareness of these child welfare problems in the early 1900s; where they differed, however, is in their ultimate goals. The Children's Bureau sought to improve long-term medical care and infant mortality rates for women regardless of race or socioeconomic status; I analyze how they worked directly with midwives and health officials to provide better care for mothers and children. The Better Babies Bureau, in comparison, catered specifically to white women through prize-based contests and eugenics rhetoric. Through their better baby contests, they promoted the idea that disabilities and defects should be eliminated in children in order to create a better future. By the late 1910s, these two organizations were utilizing nationwide campaigns to appeal to mothers through either consumerism or health conferences. I argue that although the Better Babies Bureau made a greater cultural impact, the Children's Bureau made a longer lasting—and farther reaching—impact on infant mortality rates by making healthcare more accessible for both rural and urban women.

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Keywords
eugenics, progressivism, child welfare, infant mortality
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