PhD candidate, History, Northwestern University
Cohort Seven Fellow

Academic Mentor
Susan Pearson, PhD
Associate Professor, Department of History, Northwestern University

Policy Mentor
Terri Sabol
Assistant Professor, Department of Human Development and Social Policy, Northwestern University  

Areas of Expertise
Child Welfare and Foster Care Systems, Early Childhood Education and Initiatives, Archival Research


Michelle Bezark is a doctoral student in the department of history at Northwestern University. She studies the history of child welfare policy in the United States under the guidance of Dr. Susan Pearson. Her dissertation examines the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921, the nation’s first federal legislation to promote child welfare. Her broader historical interests include the history of childhood, public health, and state-building. Ms. Bezark has received multiple grants to support her research in archives across the country. She holds an MA in history from Sonoma State University and a BA from the University of Vermont.


The “Better Baby Bill:” The Sheppard-Towner Act and the Origins of State-Sponsored Child Welfare

The 1921 Sheppard-Towner Act, colloquially known as the “Better Baby Bill,” provided federal funding to match state spending on infant and maternal welfare. This was the nation’s first federal social welfare program. It was also the first attempt to incorporate “women’s issues” into the national political dialogue after the Nineteenth Amendment granted women the franchise in 1919. According to the United States Children’s Bureau annual reports, half of all babies born in the United States between 1921 and 1929 benefited in some way from this legislation. My dissertation will trace Sheppard-Towner funds from their origin in the U.S. Children’s Bureau to their terminus in private homes and local community spaces in order to illustrate how this federal funding was used on the ground. The results will illustrate the relationship between federal policy, state bureaus of health, private charitable organizations, and individual families.