The Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act, signed by President Warren G. Harding on November 23, 1921, was the first federal social welfare program created explicitly for women and children. It was a bridge between pre–World War I Progressive reform, especially that which organized women's groups championed, and postwar welfare ideas, as expressed by the "welfare capitalism" of the 1920s, and in later social programs, such as the New Deal. It was also the first major political dividend of the recent success of the woman suffrage movement. Women's organizations protected it as long as they could.
The U.S. CHILDREN'S BUREAU, founded in 1912, conducted major studies that showed that the United States had very high rates of infant and maternal mortality. In 1918 the United States was eleventh in INFANT MORTALITY, and seventeenth in maternal deaths, among industrialized nations. Eighty percent of all pregnant women received no prenatal advice or trained care. Bureau researchers also discovered that poverty and death were closely related. Bureau chief Julia Lathrop championed maternal and infant protection, and, in altered form, Democratic Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas and Republican Congressman Horace Towner of Iowa reintroduced her bill in the sixty-sixth Congress. In the 1920 elections, with full suffrage for women, the National League of Women Voters pressured the Democratic, Socialist, Prohibition, and Farmer-Labor parties to endorse the measure in their platforms; only the Republican Party's platform ignored it, although its presidential candidate, Warren G. Harding, endorsed the bill. It passed the U.S. Senate by a 63–7 margin in July, and the House, after considerable GOP foot dragging and scattered cries of a Communist conspiracy, by a 279–39 margin. Major opponents were the American Medical Association, such antisuffragist organizations as the Woman Patriots, and politicos in either major party resentful of woman suffrage and of feminism.
In a decade in which the United States Bureau of Public Roads spent two billion dollars a year on highways, the Sheppard-Towner Act hardly seemed extravagant. It authorized $1,480,000 for fiscal 1921–1922 and $1,240,000 for the next five years, ending June 30, 1927. Of these sums, $5000 went to each state without exception, and double that amount went to states offering matching funds. The Children's Bureau distributed the remainder according to population. Administrative expenses were limited. Participating states enacted enabling legislation and implementation plans. The law provided for maternal and infant hygienic information through nurses, centers, conferences, and mass pamphlets. Forty-one states joined in 1922. Only three never did. In 1929 Congressional opponents torpedoed the bill, and President Hoover let it lapse with wan endorsements.
Between 1922 and 1929, the Children's Bureau conducted 183,252 conferences, established 2,978 prenatal care units, visiting nurses made 3,131,996 home visits, and 22,020,489 pamphlets had been passed out. America's infant and maternal death rates fell by 16 percent and 12 percent, respectively, but these were still twice what New Zealand and Great Britain experienced in the same years.
Lemons, J. Stanley. 1969. "The Sheppard-Towner Act: Progressivism in the 1920s." The Journal of American History 55 (March):776–786.