As our current public health crisis rages, the importance of carework comes into focus more clearly than ever before. As social theorist Nancy Fraser put it in a recent interview, COVID-19 “puts the spotlight on people’s interior lives and what it takes under these conditions to keep a household running.” Work that was previously overlooked and undervalued is now considered essential as the healthcare, sanitation, transportation, and grocery workers rush to the frontlines. Key among this work is child care. What happens to our children’s care and education when schools and child care facilities are forced to close their doors—perhaps permanently—and yet parents continue to work? Our current situation is unprecedented for many of us, but a closer look at women’s history reminds us of two previous moments when the nation came agonizingly close to national child care solutions.
War posters like these encouraged women to work, breaking with cultural tradition that insisted that respectable women—especially those that were married—should stay home. Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society.
The number of working women who joined the war effort during World Ward II was also unprecedented. While “women have always worked,” cultural attitudes painted the participation of “respectable” married women in the labor force as unnatural and an aberration—especially if they were mothers. However, the material realities of war temporarily turned the tables. Caring for the children of these “Rosie the Riveters” required “Uncle Sam’s cradles,” as Sonya Michel has put it. Building on a smaller, New Deal Era program for emergency nurseries, the 1940 Lanham Act created 635 federally funded child care centers in communities with defense industries, and eventually expanded to over 3,000 centers serving over 600,000 children. Politicians who had been reluctant to see women join the labor market acquiesced in the face of wartime need.
These photographs by Gordon Parks for the Office of War Information capture scenes from a wartime child care center opened in 1942 Connecticut. Library of Congress.
Most of these new federal child care centers were closed at the end of the war. Michel argues that “mixed messages from government officials as well as civic leaders produced uneven and half-hearted policies, which, in turn, failed to inspire public confidence in government-sponsored child care.” Young children’s care was still predominately viewed as mothers’ responsibility, with the private market or philanthropy filling in only when absolutely necessary. These public nurseries did not close without a fight, however; Emilie Stoltzfus traces women’s activism to extend public child care programs in the years after the war.
The 1963 CSW report, “American Women,” included an analysis of the lack of child care facilities. This copy of the report is displayed in Women March. New-York Historical Society, Courtesy of Alice Kessler-Harris
Decades later, a renewed feminist movement recognized that economic freedom was integral to full citizenship, and sought to expand opportunities for women to work outside of the home. Spurred on by women’s advocates, John F. Kennedy formed the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) to examine gender disparities. The resulting 1963 report, American Women, proposed widespread changes to government policy in education, employment, labor, and the social safety net, laying the groundwork for a groundswell of feminist activism. In addition to lobbying for legislation and legal precedents that would ban sex discrimination in paid employment, women’s advocates also called for public daycare to make caregiving a societal responsibility.
Following the CSW as a roadmap, the National Organization for Women (NOW) called for public provision of child care services as one of the demands of its Bill of Rights at its inaugural conference in 1967. (Other goals set forth in the NOW Bill of Rights include passage of the ERA and calls for legislation to ban sex discrimination in employment and education, provide maternity leave, create job training opportunities, grant allowances for women in poverty, and ensure reproductive rights.) NOW argued that without universally available child care centers, women would always be considered second-class citizens and the status quo of gender inequality would remain unchanged.
In the early 1970s, the federal government was poised to address these concerns about children’s care. The bipartisan 1971 Comprehensive Child Care Development Act (CDA) would have established a national public child care program, with public child care centers universally available on a sliding-scale basis—free for children of the poor, but available for a fee to children from middle-class and affluent families. It passed by an overwhelming majority in Congress, and was supported by a range of advocates, including feminists, child development experts, child welfare activists, unions, and religious organizations. But, President Richard Nixon vetoed it in a surprising, politically calculated maneuver intended to curry favor with the dissident right wing of the Republican party. His veto effectively decimated future legislative attempts to extend care, and, as I argue elsewhere, feminists were too divided along race and class lines to effectively advocate for a vision of child care that could prioritize the needs of the poorest families and still speak to all women’s needs.
Since the veto, no federal child care legislation that would tackle such a broad swath of the population has advanced out of committee hearings. Rather, the two-tiered strategy that emerged in the CDA’s wake allows affluent families to take tax deductions for child care costs while inadequately funding the public provision of care that is limited to the poor. This class-stratified approach has racial implications as well, as nonwhite families are more likely to have incomes that are too low to benefit from tax credits and less likely to earn enough to afford child care in the private market. The crisis that we see laid bare by COVID-19 is a continuation of these trends, though there are alternative models in our history.
Written by Anna Danziger Halperin, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History