The purpose of the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921 -- sometimes called the Maternity Act -- was "to reduce maternal and infant mortality." The legislation was supported by progressives, social reformers, and feminists including Grace Abbott and Julia Lathrop.
At the time the legislation was introduced, childbirth remained the second leading cause of death for women. About 20% of children in the United States died in their first year and about 33% in their first five years. Family income was an important factor in these mortality rates, and the Sheppard-Towner Act was designed to encourage states to develop programs to serve women at lower income levels.
The Sheppard-Towner Act provided for federal matching funds for such programs as:
- health clinics for women and children, hiring physicians and nurses to educate and care for pregnant women and mothers and their children
- visiting nurses to educate and care for pregnant and new mothers
- midwife training
- distribution of nutrition and hygiene information
Support and Opposition
Julia Lathrop of the U.S. Children's Bureau drafted the language of the act, and Jeannette Rankin introduced it into Congress in 1919. Rankin was no longer in the Congress when the Sheppard-Towner Act passed in 1921. Two similar Senate bills were introduced by Morris Sheppard and Horace Mann Towner. President Warren G. Harding supported the Sheppard-Towner Act, as did many in the progressive movement.
Groups including the American Medical Association (AMA) and its Section on Pediatrics labeled the program "socialistic" and opposed its passage and opposed its funding in subsequent years.
End of the Sheppard-Towner Act
By 1929, the political climate had changed sufficiently that the funding for the Sheppard-Towner Act was ended, with pressure from opposition groups likely the major reason for the de-funding.
Significance of the Sheppard-Towner Act
The Sheppard-Towner Act, which was unsuccessfully challenged in the Supreme Court in Frothingham V. Mellon And Massachusetts V. Mellon (1923), was significant in American legal history because it was the first federally-funded social welfare program, and because the challenge to the Supreme Court failed.
The Sheppard-Towner Act is significant in women's history because it addressed the needs of women and children directly at a federal level.
It is also significant for the role of women activists including Jeannette Rankin, Julia Lathrop, and Grace Abbott, who considered it part of the women's rights agenda beyond winning the vote for women. The League of Women Voters and the General Federation of Women's Clubs worked for its passage. It shows one of the ways that the women's rights movement continued to work after the right of suffrage was won in 1920.
The significance of the Sheppard-Towner Act in progressive and public health history is in demonstrating that education and preventive care provided through state and local agencies could have a significant effect on maternal and child mortality rates.