Children's Defense Fund

The Children's Defense Fund (CDF) was founded in 1973 as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The CDF quickly became a powerful advocacy agency for impoverished and at risk children, more effective than the U.S. CHILDREN'S BUREAU ever was. Marion Wright Edelman, its founder and vigorous leader, was born June 6, 1939, in Bennettsville, South Carolina, the daughter of an African-American Baptist minister, Arthur Bennett, who taught that Christianity necessitated service to the world. The elder Bennett idolized A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a hero of the civil rights movement. Edelman studied at Spelman College, in Atlanta, and abroad, including in the Soviet Union. When she returned to Spelman in 1959, she abandoned her Foreign Service plans for the law, and threw herself into the civil rights movement. She took her law degree at Yale in 1963. She then worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York, then Mississippi, where she worked on civil rights issues and established a Head Start program. When U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was touring Mississippi, she met Peter Edelman, a Kennedy assistant, and moved to Washington, D.C. a year later to marry him. In 1968 she helped found the Washington Research Project, Inc., a private, not for profit institution that helped poor people investigate and monitor the federal programs that Congress had designed for them. Marian Wright Edelman developed a double-barreled style: vigorous, no-nonsense public advocacy and investigatory research.

In 1973, Edelman and her allies in the Washington, D.C. area organized the Children's Defense Fund using the personnel and knowledge that had accrued in the Washington Research Project. Edelman eschewed direct dependence on government agencies, budgets, and officials. Instead she and her associates organized the CDF as a private, not for profit organization of lawyers, monitors of federal policy, researchers, and community liaison persons, all of whom were dedicated to long-term systematic advocacy and reform on behalf of the nation's children. An early CDF project probed why children of varying ages and backgrounds were not in school. Between July 1973 and March 1974, forty-two part time and summer staffers, plus Edelman and three full time associates knocked on 8,500 doors in thirty areas of nine states, and talked to over 6,500 families. From this interviewing came the first of many hard-hitting, often shocking, reports of how many poor children fall between society's cracks. Often CDF surveys were more thorough than the United States Census in investigating these problems and issues.

When Bill Clinton became President in 1993, CDF staffers hoped for child-friendly policies. Instead Clinton terminated Aid to Families of Dependent Children (AFDC), and other similar programs. Edelman vigorously attacked these actions. By 2003 the CDF employed a staff of 130, raised and spent about $25 million a year from private corporations as it continued its advocacy work for the most needy and underserved children.

See also: Aid to Dependent Children (AFDC); Law, Children and the; Social Welfare; Welfare Reform Act (1996).


Children's Defense Fund. 1974. Children Out of School, a Report by the Children's Defense Fund of the Washington Research Project, Inc. Cambridge: Children's Defense Fund.


About Women's History. "Marian Wright Edelman." Available from