March is Women’s History Month, a time to notice and reflect on the sometimes-unseen accomplishments of women. Women have done extraordinary work with impactful consequences in every arena, including foster care. Here is a look at some of the phenomenal women who have propelled foster care throughout history.
Jane Addams and Hull-House
A powerful name in women’s history and the history of foster care is Jane Addams. She was born in 1860 and died in 1935, and her years were marked with exceptional achievements. The first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Addams devoted her life to social work. She was “instrumental in successfully lobbying for the establishment of a juvenile court system, better urban sanitation and factory laws, protective labor legislation for women, and more playgrounds and kindergartens throughout Chicago.”
She is most well known for founding Hull-House, a social settlement built on Chicago’s Near West Side in 1889. Working with other notable figures like Ellen Gates Starr, Dr. Alice Hamilton, and Sophonisba Breckinridge, Addams expanded Hull-House into a 13-building complex that provided education, community, and social services for the low-income urban neighborhood.
That sense of community and emphasis on well-rounded, growth-oriented care went on to define new standards of child welfare.
The Women That Made the US Children’s Bureau
1912 saw the establishment of the US Children’s Bureau, a federal agency that still exists today. It aims to strengthen families, protect children, and ensure that “every child and youth has a permanent family or family connection.” The Children’s Bureau was the first federal agency dedicated to child welfare.
Credit for the conception of the federal agency goes to Lillian Wald and Florence Kelley. Throughout the Bureau’s history, its Chiefs and its primarily female employees have made great strides in child care. The first Chief of the Children’s Bureau was Julia Lathrop, nicknamed “America’s First Official Mother.”
Women’s Impact on Child Welfare Legislation
In 1921, Grace Abbott succeeded Julia Lathrop as Chief of the Children’s Bureau. Along with other female leaders of the Progressive Era, Abbott was instrumental in the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act. The law was the first to provide federal grants for child welfare and enabled federal-state cooperation to promote maternal and child health.
Notably, the Sheppard-Towner Act was the first major legislation to pass after the full enfranchisement of women. The law’s passage was also advocated by the Children’s Bureau and the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee. Again, this demonstrated the power of female voters to enact legislation.
Women also had a hand in crafting legislation themselves. For example, Grace Abbott drafted critical sections of the Social Security Act alongside Katharine Lenroot and Martha Eliot. The act provides federal funding to states for foster care, adoption assistance, and other child welfare needs.
The Women of USCOM
Women have had a long and storied impact on foster care in the United States, but the influence of American women goes beyond US borders. During World War II, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt spearheaded the United States Committee for the Care of European Children (USCOM). The organization aimed to help refugee children fleeing the war in Europe. USCOM navigated the transport of children out of Europe and arranged for care back in the States. The majority of children were cared for by volunteer foster parents.
Martha Sharp coordinated the first transport, and her work paved the way for USCOM to bring children to safety. Between 1940 and 1945, USCOM enabled the safe passage of over 300 refugee children—many of them Jewish.
The work of USCOM set a precedent for the care of refugee children in the future, with foster care at its heart and reunification as its goal.
Women Continue to Lead the Way
Today, women continue to make strong positive impacts on the realm of foster care. At SOS Children’s Villages Illinois, women have been integral to our success from the start. Our predominantly female staff strive to make a difference in the lives of children in foster care.
Help us celebrate their contributions by supporting SOS Illinois so we can continue to provide hope and security to children in foster care. You can also show your support by buying something from our Amazon wishlist, dedicating your time and talent as a volunteer, or considering becoming a Foster Parent! Help us build on women’s impacts and leave a legacy of trusting, confident, and hopeful children!