How Did Iowa Women Activists Lobby for the
Passage of the Juvenile Court Law, 1904?


Cora Bussey Hillis

Documents selected and interpreted by
Shannon O'Connor
under the direction of Professor Victoria Brown
of Grinnell College, Spring 2002

       In 1904, the state of Iowa passed legislation creating a separate court for juvenile offenders in the state.  The act, "Enlarging the Powers of the District Court, and to Regulate the Treatment and Control of Dependant, Neglected and Delinquent Children," was a legislative response to calls from various groups, including many women's groups, to protect children involved in the criminal court system.  This legislation, spearheaded by one woman, Cora Bussey Hillis of Des Moines, Iowa, did not occur in a vacuum, but was in fact the product of a larger movement around the country to identify the needs of children and protect their interests.  At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, a wave of juvenile reform swept the nation and, within a few years, most states passed similar juvenile court legislation.  Iowa shared with many "progressive" states the same general motivations for establishing a juvenile court system.  The Iowa story serves as a reminder, however, that every reform story has its own individual players, such as Cora Bussey Hillis, whose personal circumstances coincide with the historical moment in a way that ignites civic action.

       The juvenile court movement has its roots in several concentric circles: the history of the law and juveniles, the Progressive era itself, and the idea of educated motherhood espoused by groups such as the National Congress of Mothers.  The history of how the law has dealt with juvenile offenders is really quite short.  Samuel Walker's study of the history of American criminal justice reveals that during the colonial and early national period, there were no special legal institutions devoted to deal with children.  This changed in the 1820s with the advent of more systematized policies on child offenders and the creation of publicly-supported "Houses of Refuge."  Importantly, three features of these Houses carried over into the Progressive era juvenile court ideology: first, broad definitions of what acts were illegal if committed by juveniles; second, unstructured enforcement of judgments against minors; and third, separate facilities/institutions for juveniles.[1] Drawing on these traditions, Illinois passed the first juvenile court law in the United States in 1899.  Within five years, ten other states had enacted similar legislation, and by 1920, 45 of the nation's 48 states had established juvenile courts.[2]

       As construed in the Progressive era, the juvenile court was designed to do one thing: rehabilitate the child.[3] The reformers who designed the laws were grounded in the Progressive notion, made explicit by psychologists like G. Stanley Hall, that childhood and adolescence were distinct developmental stages in which individuality emerged out of instinct.[4]  According to this theory, institutionalization destroyed individual development. Proper individual treatment, however, could nurture the wayward child back onto the normal developmental path.  Juvenile courts, therefore, were designed to operate less rigidly and more personally than adult courts. According to a 1904 report on juvenile courts to the International Prison Commission, "such a court cannot be run on automatic or mechanical methods."[5] As a part of this informality, lawyers were not necessarily present for court proceedings, the participants did not follow rules of evidence and testimony, there were no juries impaneled, and judges rarely sat on imposing benches above the child.[6] The court also relied heavily on the individual personality of the presiding judge. Advocates for children believed that by according the judge unique flexibility in a juvenile court he could reach delinquents in a way that laws and technicalities could not.[7] The juvenile court judge also was given a new range of punishments to more fully effect rehabilitation. Between the extremes of institutionalization or release, the judge could assign delinquents to the juvenile court probation system.[8] This system was the most important aspect of the juvenile court movement because the judge could use the probation officers to learn more about the individual child and the child's environment and family. The judge could also enlist the help of psychological experts and then supervise the child more thoroughly in the community.[9]

       Female activists were central to the movement to establish juvenile courts in the United States.  In both Illinois and Pennsylvania, the two states that inaugurated the movement, reform-minded women played key roles in the legislative campaigns.  In Illinois, members of the Chicago Women's Club teamed up with the women of the Hull House settlement to navigate a juvenile court law through the state legislature.[10] In Pennsylvania, the campaign was led by Hannah Kent Schoff, a founding member of the National Congress of Mothers in 1897 and the president of the Pennsylvania chapter of that organization.[11]

       The National Congress of Mothers, forerunner to the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, mobilized thousands of women on behalf of child-saving activism in the early years of the twentieth century. The Congress offered a combination of national leadership and local autonomy that was popular with the largely white, middle-class female membership.  The local groups could be as political as they wanted and partake in the national organization's national movements for reform, or members could simply apply their time to Mother's Circles and Child Study groups where mothers came together to read the latest child psychology and childrearing information.  In any event, Congress mothers justified their activism in the name of their duty to care for all of society's children.[12]

       The reform agenda of the National Congress of Mothers reflected the mix of motives often associated with the Progressive era.  Members of the Congress generally rejected the idea of "social Darwinism,"believing instead that, with aid, the social environment of the young and innocent could be made more healthy and educational.  To advance this program, these reform women were unafraid to expand state powers to protect children.[13]  They lobbied, in these years, for widows' pensions and for federal health care programs.[14]  Inspired by leaders like Hannah Schoff, they also lobbied for creation of juvenile courts, arguing that it was appropriate for the state to act, in loco parentis, when children were in need of more guidance than their parents seemed able to provide.  Some Congress members undoubtedly looked to juvenile courts to provide working-class children and their families with a measure of the sympathy and social justice denied them in the harsh world of industrial capitalism.  Other Congress members, reflecting the array of attitudes that motivated reform in the Progressive Era, sought to use the juvenile courts to control those elements of society they felt needed uplift and control.

       The Iowa juvenile court system was one of those that was inspired by the National Congress of Mothers.  At the head of the Iowa campaign was Cora Bussey Hillis, the daughter of a Union general and the wife of a prominent Des Moines lawyer who served as the city's mayor at the turn of the century.  Three of Hillis's five children met with tragic deaths in childhood.  With each death, Hillis became more committed to social activism on behalf of children.  In fact, her first experience with activism in the 1890's arose out of her maternal alarm upon learning that her eldest child was playing in the city's swollen rivers during the hot summer.  Hillis translated her personal concern for her child's safety into a successful campaign for a public swimming facility in Des Moines.[15]

       As the wife of a lawyer and local politician, Hillis was naturally involved in the Des Moines Women's Club, but in 1898 she also joined the National Congress of Mothers.  At that time there was no state chapter of the Congress. By 1900, however, Hillis had demonstrated her organizational talents by creating an Iowa chapter of the Congress of Mothers, getting elected president of the new state chapter, and convincing the National Congress of Mothers to hold its national meeting in Des Moines.  Hillis's subsequent campaign to establish a juvenile court in Iowa was fueled by her association with other women engaged in child welfare reforms across the nation.  When she read of children in Iowa being placed in jails with adult criminals and fed an adult diet of coffee, bread and molasses, she decided to use her position as president of the Iowa Congress of Mothers to enact juvenile court legislation.[16]

       Hillis lost a second child to death in 1902, just as she began her juvenile court campaign.  She retired from public life to nurse her grief but returned to activism in 1904.  Immediately she picked up the juvenile court project and formed a political alliance with state senator John Smith. Together they won the support of the legislature and in April 1904 Iowa Governor Albert Cummins, well-known as a "progressive," signed the act that created a juvenile court in Iowa.  The victory followed on the heels of a campaign that included visits and lectures by prominent juvenile court reformers such as Judge Ben Lindsey of Denver, Colorado and Judge Richard Tuthill of Chicago.  The law, once signed, created a new level of social control over the children -- and parents -- of  Iowa.  The law's definitions of "dependent," "neglected," and "delinquent" children give the juvenile court jurisdiction over a wide range of young people, from those who were destitute to those who had a taste for gambling or train tracks.

       As the documents that follow demonstrate, Hillis was greatly aided in her Iowa campaign by the network afforded by the National Congress of Mothers.  Though Hillis's own voice is obscured in the records she kept, those records make clear that she was well connected to leading reformers of the day and fully involved in designing the particulars of the juvenile court bill.  The records also indicate that Hillis continued to be involved in the implementation of the law through her work with the detention home.  Passage of the juvenile court law did not end Hillis's activism on behalf of Iowa children.  She spent the next thirteen years of her life creating the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station and communicating with national leaders about child-welfare policy.  Some years after her death, Hillis was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame.

       Cora Bussey Hillis and the 1904 Iowa Juvenile Court law are both outgrowths of several movements.  The term "Progressive era" really defines the confluence of a number of reforms and reformist ideals.  The National Congress of Mothers and their ideology of educated motherhood influenced a great number of women to act for the best interests of children in the country.  The Juvenile Court movement was an associated reform, growing out of early developmental psychology and even earlier "child-saving"efforts.  These three circles of reform interacted in Iowa in the early part of the twentieth century.  An important result was the 1904 juvenile court law.  Iowa did not inaugurate juvenile court laws, nor was the case of Iowa unique, but the campaign led by Cora Bussey Hillis and the Congress of Mothers is evidence of the power of women to respond to and act upon multiple social movements across the nation.


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