Women in History – 29 June

Julia Clifford Lathrop (June 29, 1858 – April 15, 1932) was an American social reformer in the area of education, social policy, and children’s welfare. As director of the United States Children’s Bureau from 1912 to 1922, she was the first woman ever to head a United States federal bureau.

Julia Clifford Lathrop was born in Rockford, Illinois. Julia’s father, a lawyer and personal friend of Abraham Lincoln, helped establish the Republican Party and served in the state legislature (1856–57) and Congress (1877–79). Her mother was a suffragist active in women’s rights activities in Rockford and a graduate of the first class of Rockford Female Seminary.

Lathrop attended Rockford Female Seminary where she met Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. After one year, she transferred to Vassar College, developing her own multidisciplinary studies in statistics, institutional history, sociology, and community organization and graduated in 1880. Afterwards, she worked in her father’s law office first as a secretary and then studying the law for herself.

In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson sent Lathrop and Grace Abbott to represent the U.S. at an international conference on child welfare. There Lathrop consulted on the formation of a childcare bureau in the newly formed country of Czechoslovakia. After her retirement from the Children’s Bureau in 1922, Lathrop became president of the Illinois League of Women Voters. She also helped form the National Committee of Mental Illness. In 1925 Lathrop represented the U.S. in Switzerland at the Child Welfare Committee established by the League of Nations.