Gender and the Personal Shaping of Public Administration in the United States: Mary Anderson and the Women's Bureau, 1920–1930


John Thomas McGuire is lecturer in the State University of New York system. His research centers on women, social movements, and public policy in the United States from the late nineteenth century until the 1940s. His work recently has been published in Administration & Society, the Journal of Policy History, and the Journal of Urban History. Previously, he was trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice and served on the boards of two New York State legal assistance organizations.


Scholars of public administration in the United States traditionally view the 1920s as a decade when the administrative orthodoxy, emphasizing efficiency and organizational structure, dominated the field. This viewpoint recently has been challenged by arguments that the social justice–oriented views of women progressives and the philosophy of pragmatism also influenced public administration. However, no one has examined how women public administrators implemented exceptions to the prevailing, masculine viewpoints of administrative objectivity and the strict dichotomy between politics and administration during the 1920s. Using Mary Anderson (1872–1964), the longtime director of the U.S. Department of Labor's Women's Bureau, as a case study, this article examines how her experiences as a woman worker and labor organizer influenced her advocacy of an alternative view of public administration, and how, from 1920 through 1930, she established the Women's Bureau within the prevailing orthodoxy yet also made the government agency a notable exception through its vigorous support of social justice feminism, particularly during and after the 1926 national Women's Industrial Conference.