Janet Golden: The U.S. Children’s Bureau: Time for a Revival?


Janet Golden is a professor of history at Rutgers University who specializes in the histories of medicine, childhood and women, as well as American social history. She discussed her current project, the history of babies in America, in a short interview.

On a recent episode of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, set in Atlantic City in the Prohibition Era, the wife of the city’s boss, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, was speaking with a physician and a nun about a women’s health clinic she founded. Reviewing the language of the materials to be distributed, the nun objects to the word menstruation.  Mrs. Thompson responds, “The Federal Children’s Bureau has already published a series on prenatal care and ‘menstruation’ is what they used.” A shout out to the show’s writers for acknowledging the work of this largely unknown agency (actually called the United States Children’s Bureau) on its 100th birthday.  

Founded in 1912 and housed in the Department of Labor, the Children’s Bureau was the first federal agency to be run by women -   and the first time the federal government committed to efforts on behalf of children’s health and welfare.  The bureau had a broad mission: reducing infant and child mortality, improving child health, abolishing child labor and advocating for those with special needs, including the orphaned, abandoned, disabled, and delinquent. It also had a limited mandate: investigating and educating, while leaving intervention and services to the states....

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