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Infant and maternal morality were higher in the late-nineteenth-century United States than in most industrializing nations, and such deaths were more common in poor families than in elite ones. Higher American death rates were due in part to traditions of limited government that diminished the public sector's responsibility for human health. Beginning in the 1890s, American women reformers began to fill this void in public health care by creating institutions that could serve the health needs of recent immigrants, especially women and children. Members of the Women's City Club of New York advanced public health in a new direction by establishing New York City's first maternity clinic to serve women's pre-natal health needs in 1915. It offered preventive health care, childbirth nursing assistance, and postpartum care, as well as holding Mothers' Club meetings where women could learn how to take care of their newborns. The Maternity Center became a model that representatives from many other cities studied as they grappled with extremely high maternal and infant mortality rates in the early twentieth century.


To explore the objectives of the Women's City Club when they opened the Maternity Center in New York City in 1915; to examine class and ethnic tensions between middle-class women and the working-class women they served.

Lesson Ideas

Begin by reading "Maternity Protection," October 1917, and "The Maternity Center," 1919. What did the Women's City Club of New York mean by the phrase "maternity protection?" How did the club propose to achieve this goal? What tactics did the 1919 pamphlet use to garner support for the Maternity Center?

Break students into three groups and assign each group one of the following reading assignments as homework:

Group 1: Anne A. Stevens, "The Work of the Maternity Center Association," November 1919

Group 2: "The Work of the Maternity Center Association," Exhibits 1-3

Group 3: "The Work of the Maternity Center Association," Exhibits 4-7

Ask each group to also read "Workers Needed," December 1919.

During the next class period, lead a discussion of the following questions: What was the target audience of the Maternity Center? Who were the women delivering the services? How might the staff and volunteers at the Maternity Center conflict with women they visited? Can students explain the Center's overwhelming success in this context?

Optional writing assignment: Ask each student to expand on class discussion by writing a 1-2 page paper exploring the underlying class and ethnic tensions between Maternity Center staff and the mothers they were trying to reach. Make sure they include relevant examples from their reading.

For Further Exploration:

To learn more about one organization with which the Women's City Club of New York cooperated, explore the Henry Street Settlement.

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