Children's Interests/Mothers' Rights: The Shaping of America's Child Care Policy.
With the Department of Labor reporting that as of 1997-98 61.4 percent of families with children under the age of 6 had mothers employed full-time, it is time for the United States to provide high quality, publicly-supported child care for all working mothers. Sonya Michel's Children's Interests/Mothers' Rights uncovers the elaborate history of child care policy in the United States to explain why we still do not have universal child care. Her central argument is that a deeply held ideal of the stay-at-home mother supported by a male-breadwinner-father fueled persistent resistance to maternal employment. The ideal of the stay-at-home mother in turn undermined the development of universal child care. Even the feminist movement of the 1960s, that challenged this ideology of motherhood, failed to mobilize efforts to provide public child care. The United States is thus left with the "dubious distinction of being the only democratic market society" that fails to see child care as a "boon to both children and mothe rs."
Michel traces the provision of institutional child care back to the establishment of the nursery by charitable reformers in the late 18th century. The condescension of philanthropists toward poor women shaped 19th century child care arrangements, where children's clothes were fumigated and working mothers felt alienated from their children. In striking contrast to these class tensions among white women, in the African American community, where maternal employment was recognized as a permanent part of black family life, clubwomen's compassion for poor black mothers made the establishment of day nurseries an obvious practical solution. The legacy of 19th century child care, while enabling mothers to escape the worst aspects of poverty, affirmed wage-earning women as mothers, not workers. This constrained the possibility of claiming child care as a woman's right in the twentieth century.
Michel's exhaustive research shows that efforts to secure universal public child care have a long history of slow developments. Michel is particularly astute in analyzing the class dynamics of the players in the struggle for universal child care. The child care movement of the late-nineteenth century was made up of middle and upper-class women, not nursery workers or actual working mothers. This created distrust for institutional arrangements on the part of working mothers themselves. The cause of child care was further undermined at the turn of the century by leaders in social work and social welfare such as Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Sophonisba Breckenridge and Edith Abbott, who believed that child care created its own problems of delinquent and maladjusted children. This view made the mothers' pension, which affirmed the mothers' place within the home, the dominant public policy through the Progressive Era, leaving efforts to secure child care behind.
The principled opposition to maternal employment persisted in the 1920s and 1930s, leading reformers to fall back on mothers' pensions rather than press
for government support of child care. Players during these decades included the U.S. Children's Bureau, which served as the federal voice of neo-maternalist reformers, the U.S. Women's Bureau, which did not see child care as either a labor issue or an entitlement for working mothers, and emergency agencies such as the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Works Administration. In the 1930s, Emergency Nursery Schools made the public more comfortable with sending small children away from home for part of the day, and paved the way for a government policy by both putting the Federal government in the business of child care, and combining the benefits of child care and early childhood education. But creating nursery schools rather than child care facilities prevented mothers from asserting child care as their right.
Even enormous demand for child care created by the defense economy build up of the 1940s did not change the dominant ideology of motherhood. While the federal government invested in child care with its Child Care and Protection Program of 1943, these facilities were still viewed as educational rather than social welfare services. The participation of working mothers in the wartime economy did pose a challenge to the dominant therapeutic perspective that pathologized the working mother, arguing that staying at home and perserving the democractic family was the healthy, proper role for mothers. Still, Michel argues, the therapeutic perspective was reinforced by conservative attempts to contain women's assertions of autonomy, and both continued to thwart public demand for child care services.
The post war years saw the free-standing child care movement gain momentum, while there was still no unequivocal acknowledgement that mothers belonged in the labor force. The post war debate on maternal employment and child care reflected this ambivalence about working mothers. In the 1950s and 1960s, the child care constituency was divided along class and race lines, with federal support for child care targeting low-income families as an anti-poverty measure. This forced non-poor parents to seek private alternatives, such as employer-sponsored, for-profit, or in-home services. As such alternatives grew, the gap between public and private services also widened. By the 1970s, the political climate included both the women's liberation movement which endorsed universal child care, and the New Right, which gained strength from its opposition to it. The grass-roots, community activism of feminists was no match for the politically sophisticated lobbying of conservatives, and this continued to lock the child care i ssue within the framework of welfare reform. Michel concludes by explaining the failure of the United States to provide universal public child care in the present. She explains this on the basis of a range of factors, including the stigmatizing link between child care and charity, and the opposition to state intervention into the "private realm." She carries her initial point about the persistence of the ideal of the stay-at-home mother into the present: maternal employment and child care are still viewed as exceptional and pathological, an ideal that remained untouched until the feminist movement of the 1960s. Her instructive Epilogue compares American child care to the system in Sweden, France, Japan, Australia and Canada.
Providing universal child care depends on the establishment of a unified coalition of parents from every class, feminists, the labor movement and all those committed to social justice. America, Michel concludes, "must recognize the value of child rearing,... and grant every woman the right to choose between caregiving and wage-earning." Michel's thorough going research and cogent analysis of efforts to secure universal childcare are a much needed contribution to the history of motherhood and children, and essential reading for activists and policy-makers working to finally make childcare every mother's right in the United States.