Historical Highlights

The Sheppard–Towner Maternity and Infancy Act

November 23, 1921
The Sheppard–Towner Maternity and Infancy Act Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Jeannette Rankin of Montana first sponsored the legislation in 1918.
On this date, President Warren G. Harding signed the Sheppard–Towner Maternity and Infancy Act into law. Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana originally sponsored the legislation in July 1918; women’s groups lobbied on its behalf for years. After Rankin left the House in 1919, Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas, a proponent of women’s suffrage, and Representative Horace Mann Towner of Iowa, chairman of the House Committee on Insular Affairs, became the main sponsors of the bill. To combat elevated mortality rates among mothers and newborns, Sheppard–Towner provided $1 million annually in federal aid (for a five-year period) to state programs for mothers and babies, particularly prenatal and newborn care facilities in rural states. With former Representative Rankin sitting in the House Gallery, the bill was debated for 12 hours and passed by a vote of 279 to 39 on November 19, 1921; several months earlier the Senate had approved it by a similarly wide margin. Ironically, the one woman serving in Congress at that time, Representative Alice Mary Robertson of Oklahoma, voted against Sheppard–Towner and dismissed it as “a harmful bill.” Historians acknowledge it as a landmark in the development of social welfare programs in the United States.

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