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Lenroot, Katherine

Katharine F. Lenroot, (March 8, 1891 – February 10, 1982) – Director of the Children’s  Bureau, Child Welfare Advocate and Social Welfare Leader


Katharine F. Lenroot
Katharine F. Lenroot
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID hec 27884

Introduction: Katherine Fredrica Lenroot was the third Chief of the United States Children’s Bureau (1934-1951). In 1935, she also served as the president of the National Conference of Social Work. Under President Roosevelt’s administration, the responsibilities of the Children’s Bureau expanded significantly. Lenroot, along with Assistant Chief Martha Eliott and former Chief Grace Abbott designed and advocated the Title IV, or the Aid to Dependent Children, and Title V and VII of the Social Security Act of 1935. The act authorized the Children’s Bureau to administer federal grants-in-aid to the states for maternal and child health and child welfare, and services to disabled children. Later, the bureau also became responsible for the child labor provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. From 1943 to 1947 the bureau administered the Emergency Maternity and Infant Care Program for soldiers’ wives and children. To obtain the cooperation of professional and citizens’ groups, the bureau also took the initiative in forming the National Commission on Children in Wartime, which became the basis of Mid-century White House Conference on Children and Youth.

Early Career: Katharine Lenroot was born in Superior, Wisconsin on March 8, 1891 to Irvine Luther and Clara Pamela (Clough) Lenroot. Her father’s political career made Lenroot aware of social and political issues. Admitted to the bar in 1898, Irvine Lenroot was elected to the Wisconsin state legislature in 1901. After serving in Wisconsin until 1907, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served from 1909 to 1918. He was elected to the U.S. Senate and served from 1918 to 1927. During her father’s terms in the state legislature, Katharine frequently stayed in Madison, and after graduating from Superior State Normal School in 1909 she deferred entering college for a year to join him in Washington, D.C.

Affected by her father’s engagement in the regulation of Wisconsin railroads, Lenroot majored in economics and minored in sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. There, she was most influenced by the economist John R. Commons, who often required his students to conduct research for new legislation. Lenroot prepared a brief and testified before a legislative committee of Wisconsin to support minimum wage legislation, which did not exist in the United States at the time. With continued interest in minimum wage legislation, Lenroot decided to take the civil service examination, and upon completion of her B.A. in 1912, she began her professional career in 1913 as a deputy of the Industrial Commission of Wisconsin, of which Commons was a member.

Later Career: Lenroot was hired as an assistant to Emma O. Lundberg, with whom she would work closely in the following years.  In that position, she surveyed living costs in relation to the state’s new minimum wage law. In 1914, Lenroot and Lundberg both left Wisconsin to join the United States Children’s Bureau in Washington, D.C. The bureau had been created two years earlier by President Taft, with Julia Lathrop as the first Chief (1912-1921). Lundberg was appointed the first Director of the Social Service Division. Through a civil service examination, Lenroot’s first position was as a special investigator in the division, and was soon promoted to Assistant Director. Lenroot mostly studied juvenile courts, and issues of unmarried mothers and their children. Illegitimacy as a Child Welfare Problem and Juvenile Courts at Work, both co-authored with Lundberg, cover some of her research from this period.

In June 1921, Lenroot became Director of the Editorial Division, and in November 1922, at the age of 30, she was advanced to Assistant Chief of the Bureau, serving under Grace Abbott, the second Chief (1921-1934).  Grace Abbott experienced health problems in the early 1930s and had to be away from the office for extended periods of time. Abbott discovered in Lenroot an ideal acting chief in her absence.  Lenroot was committed to the philosophy of the Children’s Bureau, as outlined by its founders, and was careful and conscientious in carrying out the required administrative tasks. She wrote long and detailed letters to Grace Abbott at frequent intervals and sought direction for important decisions.

When Abbott retired in December 1934, the two leading candidates to succeed her were Martha Elliot and Katherine Lenroot. Lenroot had strong support from the American Association of Social Workers and Homer Folks of the New York State Charities Aid Association, among others.  The Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, finally chose Lenroot and recommended her to President Franklin D. Roosevelt who appointed her to be the third Chief of the Children’s Bureau, a position she held until 1951.

After the war, in July 1946, the Children’s Bureau went through administrative reorganization, and was transferred from the Department of Labor, the home of the bureau since 1913, to the Federal Security Agency. While the child labor function remained in the Department of Labor, the bureau maintained its other functions, but the place of the Children’s Bureau in the federal government continued to be a concern for Lenroot in the later years. Lenroot’s responsibility as the head of the Children’s Bureau was not limited to national child welfare, and one of her contributions in the post-war years was the creation of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. In 1946, when the Economic and Social Council established the Temporary Social Commission of the United Nations, Lenroot was appointed as its Secretary to establish a new organization within the UN to specialize in child welfare. Lenroot was also a member of the Advisory Committee of the Traffic in Women and Children established by the League of Nations Council in 1922. From 1937 through 1939, she represented the U.S. on the Advisory Committee of Social Questions of the League of Nations. Drawing on her international and inter-American experiences, Lenroot served as the U.S. representative on the executive board of UNICEF from 1947 to 1951, and played a significant role in setting the direction of the new organization.

These international interests were balanced by Lenroot’s activities outside of her duties as Chief of the Children’s Bureau.  She was a member of the board of the American Public Welfare Association, the American Association of Social Workers and the National Council of Social Work.

Lenroot retired from the Children’s Bureau in 1951, a year after serving as the Secretary of the Mid-century White House Conference on Children and Youth. She was succeeded by Martha Eliott, who had been her Assistant Chief since the mid-1930s. For her nearly 37 years of service in the bureau, Lenroot was honored with the Federal Security Agency Distinguished Civilian Service Award. Among numerous other awards she received in the course of her career were the University of Chicago’s Rosenberg Medal (1942), the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Social Sciences (1947), and the Survey Award (1950). She also received honorary doctorates from the University of Wisconsin (1938), her alma mater, Russell Sage College (1948), Tulane University (1948), Western Reserve University (1951), and Boston University (1952). For her engagement in inter-American child welfare, a number of organizations in Latin America honored her as well.

Until the early 1970s, Lenroot continued to be active in local, national and international child welfare work. After her retirement from the federal government, Lenroot moved from Washington D.C. to Hartsdale, New York, and shared a home with Emma O. Lundberg until Lundberg’s death in 1954. Lenroot frequently traveled to attend conferences and to give speeches and lectures before various audiences. Among the organizations Lenroot worked closely with were the Child Welfare League of America and the International Union for Child Welfare. She also kept in contact with the staff of the Children’s Bureau such as Martha Eliott, discussing the role and the future of the bureau.

Katharine Lenroot died on February 10, 1982 at a nursing home in Madison, Wisconsin; she was 90 years old.

Source: Walter I. Trattner, Ed., Biographical Dictionary of Social Welfare in America, (1986), Greenwood Press, New York, Westport, CT.

For more information: Ms. Lenroot’s Papers are maintained by: Columbia University Libraries, Archival Collections, Rare Book and Manuscript Library —

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2011). Katharine F. Lenroot, (March 8, 1891 – February 10, 1982) – Director of the Children’s Bureau, child welfare advocate and social welfare leader. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from