History Prof's New Book Spotlights Forgotten Heroine

November 03, 2009 - News Release

When Eglantyne Jebb started Save the Children, the world's first international child-welfare agency in 1919, she inspired a generation of women to use their skills and minds to make a difference as volunteers.

Three years later, Jebb drafted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, a series of children's rights proclamations that eventually evolved into the famous United Nations Rights of the Child that were adopted in 1959.

Yet history has largely overlooked this important historical figure — until now. University of Guelph history professor Linda Mahood has just published a first academic book about the social activist’s life and legacy, Feminism and Voluntary Action: Eglantyne Jebb and Save the Children, 1876-1928.

The book’s publication coincides with the 90th anniversary of Save the Children in the United Kingdom.
“Save the Children was the world’s first international child-welfare organization and the first to provide aid to children regardless of race, religion or nationality,” Mahood said. Save the Children sent aid into Germany and Russia, a brave and novel idea post-First World War because the British had placed economic blockades on Germany, and some regarded Russians as Bolshevik enemies, she said. “Donating to Save the Children was equated with a lack of patriotism.”

But Jebb believed that children, no matter what country they lived in, should be entitled to basic rights, Mahood said. “Then, as now, the Declaration of the Rights of the Child calls for ensuring that children are provided with medical care, proper nutrition and housing and are protected from exploitation.”

Jebb’s message resonated around the globe and sparked many affiliated organizations, including a Canadian branch of Save the Children by 1921. “Yet there is very little written about Jebb and her contributions,” said Mahood.

Born in an upper-class family in 1876, Jebb attended the University of Oxford before women could earn degrees and taught primary school, which women of her class regarded as a form of social work. Although she actually disliked hands-on charity work, she encouraged other women to engage in volunteerism and philanthropy, especially when it came to helping children.

When Jebb started Save the Children, she introduced some bold new ideas, such as making newsreels, buying space in newspapers to advertise and publishing graphic, heart-wrenching photos of starving children on the brink of death.

"They were criticized for exaggerating, falsifying claims and paying too much for adverts,” said Mahood. “But Jebb had a flair for publicity and big fundraising campaigns, and Save the Children has grown into a first-rate non-governmental organization with worldwide recognition and status.”

Mahood was drawn to researching and writing about Jebb because of an earlier academic interest in child-welfare issues of the 19th and 20th centuries. Over the years, the project ballooned into a history of women’s volunteerism and activism.

“It occurred to me that Jebb’s life story shows the role that volunteering still plays in women’s lives and how it really paves the way for other forms of social activism. Her life became my lens through which to view the way women worldwide tried to rebuild society after the devastation of the first world war and subsequent wars and natural disasters.”

Many doors were closed to women of Jebb’s generation, but charities often provided them with outlets, Mahood said. “For some, it was a social activity, for some it was a thankless chore; but for others, it was a way to break out of oppressive domestic roles, to use their education and talents to rebuild society in the name of the child.”

Prof. Linda Mahood
Department of History
519 824-4120, Ext. 53238

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, Ext. 53338 or lhunt@uguelph.ca, or Barry Gunn, Ext. 56982 or bagunn@uoguelph.ca.

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