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The Women's Joint Congressional Committee and the Politics of Maternalism, 1920-30.

The Women's Joint Congressional Committee and the Politics of Maternalism, 1920-30. By Jan Doolittle Wilson. (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Pp. x, 245. $40.00.)

In this very slender book on a very slender topic, the author uses the Women's Joint Congressional Committee [WJCC] "as a lens through which to analyze women's political culture in the 1920s" (2). The group's members, she argues, became adept at maternalist politics, at using their roles "as women and mothers to win passage of gender-specific or child-related legislation" (2). As an umbrella organization, the WJCC marshaled women's organizations at the local, state, and national levels, involving about twelve million voting women in its activities. Progressive in their politics, these women believed in the power of government to better people's lives. Although the WJCC existed until 1970, its political influence noticeably declined after 1930 because of attacks from conservatives. Despite this, Jan Doolittle Wilson situates the historical importance of the WJCC in how its "politically active women competed in the struggle to define the state's relationship to industry and human welfare throughout the 1920s" (173).

In the first chapter, the author covers the origins of the WJCC, an outgrowth of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and the formation of the National League of Women Voters. Three chapters deal with the creation of, debates over, and ultimate demise of the Sheppard-Towner Act, which allotted federal and state funds for programs to halt maternal and infant mortality. Although congressional supporters appealed to "male politicians' reverence for motherhood," they also promoted a more practical argument (45): saving the lives of women and children would make for a more prosperous country and even for a more prosperous world.

Another three chapters chart the difficulties the WJCC had in securing passage of the Child Labor Amendment. The ultimate failure of the amendment shows that its opponents "were much more successful than proponents at persuading and appealing to average citizens," especially the laborers and farmers of the working classes (131). Combined with opposition from the National Association of Manufacturers, which demonstrated the power of American business interests, by 1926 the WJCC goal to get children out of the factories was doomed. The final chapter shows how attacks by various right-wing organizations, "more than any other factor, greatly undermined organized women's ability to pursue social reform" after 1920 (148).

Wilson has written a book of sound historical scholarship. The arguments are clearly articulated and all of the evidence is properly marshaled. Yet much of this material, especially on Sheppard-Towner, will be familiar to those who have read the works of Nancy Cott, Molly Ladd-Taylor, and Robyn Muncy. The narrow topic, without a broad reach, limits Wilson's audience and ultimately does not do justice to the importance of the WJCC. Scholars interested in early twentieth-century women's political history will find a wealth of information. But students, especially undergraduates, will likely find the dozens of names and organizations coupled with the intricate details of congressional politics too Byzantine to follow.

Theresa Kaminski

University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

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Author:Kaminski, Theresa
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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