New Directions: The Eclipse
of Maternalist Medicine
State medicine is to my mind an ideal, and the sooner it changes from
an ideal to a practical reality, the better off the human race will be.
Dr. S. Josephine Baker
I wish to say that the Sheppard-Towner Bill, fortunately or unfortu-
nately is not working in the State of Illinois… Personally it is noth-
ing to me, whether it functions or not.
Dr. Lena K. Sadler
FOR WOMEN IN the professions, the decades between the two world wars were years of faltering momentum and “elusive promise.”1 Between 1910 and 1930 the proportion of women among professionals rose from about 41 percent to nearly 45 percent, but during the Depression it declined again to pre-1910 levels. The percentage of women in medicine declined during the 1920s from 5 percent to 4.4 percent and remained at 4.6 percent through the Depression.2 Women physicians had expected their high-profile war work to position them for postwar prominence, especially in maternal and child health. Passage of the 1921 Act for the Promotion of the Welfare and Hygiene of Maternity and Infancy, better known as the Sheppard-Towner Act, one year after ratification of the woman suffrage amendment, seemed to presage a breakthrough for maternalist medicine and for women physicians. But the moment was short-lived. A postwar political backlash (abetted by anti-Bolshevik anxieties) unleashed a period of retrenchment, a “politics of normalcy” that, for women, signaled the end of an era in feminist politics and progressive reform.
By the midtwenties, opposition from congressional conservatives and the AMA to federally funded social initiatives and the U.S. Children’s