The Infancy and Maternity
Protection Act of 1921
The Sheppard Towner Act, the most significant social insurance policy between the Progressive era and the New Deal, has been called the “the first major dividend of the full enfranchisement of women.”1 It was the greatest legislative success of the new Children's Bureau. Although it only lasted eight years, it remains an important piece of legislation for two reasons. It was the first federal bill aimed at improving health care for any group of American civilians, and it introduced the concept of matching grants to the area of social policy. Matching grants are a form of funding where the federal government offers states or local communities money to carry out a policy on the condition that the latter match the federal monies with their own contributions. This has since become the form of financing for many social programs.
The Sheppard-Towner Act owes its origins to the Progressives as well as the rising women's movement. By the time of World War I, many Progressives were pushing for compulsory health insurance for workers. Though part of Teddy Roosevelt's national platform in 1912, most efforts were at the state level. None, however, came even close to success. Yet, the issue of government-mandated health assistance had been raised, and it was quickly seized by proponents in the women's movement and their allies in the new Children's Bureau.
In 1917, acting under the Bureau's investigative authority, its director, Julia Lathrop, proposed a program to offer federal funds to local maternal and child health care services. The funds would be used to help provide confinement care for pregnant women, med