Fighting Hunger through Education

“The singing class at Hull House, Chicago, 1910.” The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, New York Public Library Digital Collections.

In addition to providing basic healthcare services, Hull House offered residents of the west side of Chicago English-language lessons, citizenship classes, and educational lectures. These offerings included classes in home economics such as cooking, hygiene, and household management, emphasizing mothers’ responsibilities to ensure that their families ate nutritious meals. The mostly middle-class, college-educated white women who worked at Hull House believed that if poor mothers learned to “properly” manage their households and family diets, they could feed their families healthier meals for less.

Mothers Pensions

“Poster from the National Child Labor Committee featuring a photograph by Lewis Hines, ca. 1914.” Library of Congress.

Even before they could vote, women advocated for reforms to improve the lives of mothers and children. Many marshaled support for “mothers’ pensions” to provide state assistance for widows and single mothers so that neither they, nor their children, would be forced to work. These campaigns challenged claims that the desperate circumstances of single mothers could be attributed to character defects or personal irresponsibility. By 1915, seventeen states had introduced some form of assistance for widows and other mothers in need. However, mothers’ pensions were often not available to women of color: in states where they were available, an estimated 96% of families receiving benefits were white.

Minoff, Elsa. “The Racist Roots of Work Requirements,” Center for the Study of Social Policy (Feb. 2020), p. 12. See also Linda Gordon, Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1890-1935. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Bread and Roses

“Shirtwaist Strikers holding copies of ‘The Call’, 1910.” International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs. 1885-1985. Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library.

Working women pursued their own solutions to hunger and poverty by fighting for improved wages and working conditions. Women faced discrimination from their bosses and from their male trade union leaders, who viewed them as “unskilled” workers more interested in marriage than their careers. In November 1909, women garment workers defied these expectations. Some 20,000 women took on New York City’s shirtwaist makers, walking off the job and enduring harassment and hundreds of arrests for eleven weeks through the winter. The “Uprising of the 20,000” inspired union organizing among women across the country that increased wages for thousands.

The Dark Side of Nutrition Science

“Nutrition Scientist Mary Swartz Rose demonstrates measurement techniques she developed and advocated for as a means of gauging malnutrition in children at the Morningside Nutrition and Homemaking Center.” Gottesman Libraries at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Some Americans distorted insights from nutrition science to spread pseudo-scientific arguments about white racial superiority. Proponents of “racial science” claimed that the endemic poverty of immigrant neighborhoods was a byproduct of biological differences and inherited racial traits. Racist arguments about the “fitness” of poor immigrant mothers cited new national height and weight standards, originally developed to measure malnutrition in children. The most extreme positions blended theories of biological racial hierarchy with Charles Darwin’s concept of natural selection to justify policies that would ensure racial purity, such as segregation, sterilizations, and immigration restrictions.

Children's Bureau

“The health of the child is the power of the nation.” Children’s year, April 1918 – April 1919. Library of Congress.

After years of advocacy by women reformers, in 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt convened a White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, resulting in a new agency: a Children’s Bureau. President Taft signed legislation creating the Children’s Bureau in 1912, appointing social worker Julia Lathrop, a veteran of Hull House, as its first Chief. The early Children’s Bureau was primarily charged with investigation and reporting on the welfare of children. Only through the passage of legislation in subsequent years did the Children’s Bureau gain the power to enforce new laws and enact new assistance programs as originally imagined.

Legacies of Hull House

Harris & Ewing. “Julia Lathrop, Head of the Children’s Bureau (seated, right), with staff in 1915.” Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress.

Hundreds of residents and volunteers contributed to Hull House over more than a century in operation. College-educated women like Jane Addams applied their education in innovative ways to meet the needs of the community. They were activists, suffragists, and social reformers. Together, these women were one of the most important organizing networks of the Progressive Era, when reform-minded activists applied scientific methodologies for the benefit of society. These women made significant contributions to social science, and many alumnae became leaders of the agencies they fought to establish, such as Julia Lathrop, the first director of the Children’s Bureau.

The Sheppard-Towner Act, 1921

“Jeannette Rankin addresses a D.C. crowd just before her swearing in.” April 2, 1917. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The enfranchisement of women elevated “women’s issues” in politics immediately. The first major piece of legislation passed in the wake of women’s suffrage was the Promotion of the Welfare and Hygiene of Maternity and Infancy Act (the Sheppard-Towner Act), providing new forms of health care for mothers and their children. Proposed by Representative Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, the legislation provided federal funding for maternity care, expanded funding for health education, and provided for translation of nutrition information into several languages. While Congress did not renew its funding after 1929, many of its programs were eventually codified in the Social Security Act of 1935.

Eating Like Americans:
Fighting Hunger in the Domestic Sphere

Rapid industrialization in the nineteenth century gave rise to a growing number of middle-class families who did not depend on their daughters to work on family farms or in the home. As a result, an increasing number of women, most of them white, began attending college. 

Within universities, women pioneered new scientific research about nutrition and sanitation, advancing a new discipline that came to be known as “domestic engineering” or “home economics.” Some put their education to use to solve hunger in working-class, immigrant neighborhoods, applying social scientific methods to their charity, efforts that gave rise to the settlement house movement.

These were the first attempts to address poverty and hunger comprehensively. But the efforts were premised on the assumption that hunger reflected a lack of education and improper household management by poor, immigrant mothers. Many “domestic scientists” believed that hunger and poverty could be best addressed by changing the behavior of immigrants to better reflect the norms of white, middle-class Americans like themselves.

Eating Like Americans:
Fighting Hunger in the Domestic Sphere