In contrast to the state of childcare in the US today, during World War II, working mothers in the US could rely on quality federal-funded daycare. But this initiative abruptly ended shortly after the war. Even with organized lobbying, petitions, and various means of protest, efforts to retain the daycare program all failed. More than 70 years after the war, the US had not developed an adequate childcare infrastructure and now the problem of accessible childcare has been further exacerbated by the pandemic. There are many reasons behind the downfall of the World War II daycare program of the US, all entwined within an underlying gender and political ideology.
“I appeal to you to keep the child care centers open…,” wrote former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt on her daily newspaper column My Day on September 8, 1945. This was her firm response to the closing of the US federal-funded war time childcare centers. After the war ended in August 1945, the Federal Works Agency stopped funding childcare centers, which caused an outcry that led to a petition signed by 3,647 parents urging the government to keep them open.
Roosevelt continued to write in her column,
Many communities can carry the expense of such organization for children's centers without any state or federal help. But where state help is needed, it should be given; and when states are incapable of giving sufficient help, it should be forthcoming on a national scale as it has been in the war years.
Aside from the appeal from the former first lady and the petition, the agency received 1,155 letters, 318 wires, 794 postcards protesting the closing of the childcare centers which is estimated to have cared for 550,000 to 600,000 children while their mothers worked in wartime jobs (Little, 2021).
The Lanham Act
In 19th century US, daycare existed because of charity work for the poor, including immigrant families. It was in the onset of the Depression that the first state welfare benefits, called the mothers’ pension or widows’ pensions, was introduced to provide regular payments to mothers of dependent children in the absence of men (Skocpol, T. et al., 1993).
During the Depression, childcare initiatives as a relief effort for low-income women began to run under the Work Progress Administration, which was established as part of the economic and public services programs of the New Deal in 1933. However, the wartime economy caused the demise of the WPA, followed by pressure from women and employers for the retainment of childcare centers. In response, the Federal Work Agency in 1943 took over the childcare program with funds from the Lanham Act (Dratch, 1974). It was the first time that daycare was not targeted at women with low income and was the first federal-supported universal childcare for women regardless of class, nevertheless African-American and Latina mothers faced racial discrimination (Julien, 2020).
|A day at the daycare during World War II (newamerica.org)|
As women's labor force participation significantly increased during the war, children of mothers involved in the war effort were eligible for childcare services in over 3,000 centers. Irrespective of income level, these mothers were eligible for childcare for up to six days a week with a payment of about $10/day in today’s dollars, which included meals and snacks, arts and educational enrichment activities. This was made possible through the Lanham Act that was passed in 1940 to fund public works, including childcare, in communities with defense industries (Suskind, 2020). The Lanham Act ran from August 1943 to February 1946 (Ertman, 2019).
It took war for US working mothers to be provided with adequate daycare services and peace to take them away. Subsequently, Cold War politics prevented the reopening of these facilities.
Back to the Kitchen
Why was daycare funded during World War II? To boost war production, obviously, and it became clear later that this was the only reason. Women’s best interest was not in the minds of the policymakers, childcare was set up because it was the only way to get more women to join the war effort.
In the US, initially, the federal government was reluctant to encourage the recruitment of mothers with young children. However, the lack of workers led to a labor crisis in 1942 (Dratch, 1974) and absenteeism among women workers showed that childcare was a necessity if war production were to be boosted (Ertman, 2019). The childcare services made possible through the Lanham Act, had successfully overcome this crisis.
Like the US, countries which previously did not have childcare programs, such as the UK and Canada, also provided daycare services for mothers working for the war effort. Between 1939 and 1943, the UK government mobilized 1.5 million women, which of greater proportion were married, to join the ‘essential industries’ (Elliston, 2018). In 1942, the Canadian federal government established a national system of "day nurseries" ran by trained professionals for women working in essential war time services (CBC, 1998).
However, when the war was over, things were expected to go back to normal—men returning to their jobs and women back to the kitchen and caring for their children. In the UK, after the war, many women were displaced from their jobs to give way to men. Married women especially were no longer encouraged to work and were prevented from working in certain roles (Elliston, 2018).
|Hand drilling in Nashville, Tennessee (history.com)|
Similarly, the notion that women leave the home to go out to work and put their children in daycare did not fit well into the postwar American image of the ideal family. Nevertheless, many fought for continued childcare. Local and national organizations demonstrated and lobbied for support of the 1946 Maternal and Child Welfare Act, however failed to pressure Congress to pass the act.
Despite the high-profile protests after the war, the childcare program funded through the Lanham Act ended in February 1946. Vast protests towards the closing of day nurseries after the war also occurred in Canada. Due to protest by women in Ontario, the day nurseries continued, making Ontario the first Canadian province to have regulated daycare. Interestingly, as a stay-at-home mom was an important part of the ideal postwar family, demand for daycare stood low (CBC, 1998).
The Downfall of Daycare
There are several reasons for the discontinuation of the World War II daycare funds and the downfall of quality government-supported daycare programs in the US. As the US government historically took a charity approach to childcare, the daycare program that emerged during World War II was established as a temporary measure to respond to a time of abnormality. Thus, disposing the program was much easier than expanding or integrating it into the system.
At Home as Usual
A point of view that was highly influential and posed a great obstacle for advocates of postwar daycare was one that was dubbed the “at home as usual” position. This position was supported by many in the government, businesspeople, child development experts, and men who returned from war. In the face of the postwar economy situation, it seemed natural to provide employment opportunities for men that had returned from war and expect women to go back home. Strong middle-class values also influenced the return of the golden days when men worked and women stayed at home.
Despite existing traditional values, a US Women’s Bureau Survey of 13,000 women workers in 1944–45 revealed that 3 of every 4 women expected to be employed after the war, with 57 percent of married women intending to remain in paid employment, while a poll by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) revealed that women workers in their industry expect to keep working after the war because they must support their families. Interestingly, the unions did not support the efforts of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (C.I.O) women’s auxiliaries, maintaining the traditional view that in the light of postwar economy, women should make way for male employment (Dratch, 1974: 189).
|Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, California (history.com)|
Not surprisingly either, the business sector in general lacked interest of establishing a childcare system (Dratch, 1974: 203). Rather than having a quality childcare system that will reduce the burden of female workers and will empower them, businesses preferred to maintain conditions that would limit women’s bargaining position and keep them as low-paid docile workers.
Furthermore, the “stay home as usual” position was also conveniently justified by experts’ opinion. Early childhood education was a new field in the 1940s and most established experts of the time view the mother’s presence at home as very important for child development.
This commonly held view became a barrier to efforts to gain support for women joining the labor force. In the subsequent years, more research began to reject the notion that women leaving the home to work would negatively affect children. However, even when President Kennedy, based on the report of the Commission on the Status of Women (1963), supported maternal employment and the development of a daycare program, his administration still could not gain sufficient political support for a universal childcare policy (Michel, 2011). These findings were not welcomed as fear continued to grow concerning the changes that it would have on the traditional family pattern.
Cold War Propaganda
At the same time, gender ideology played an important role throughout the US Cold War propaganda and had undermined support for government childcare funds. During this time, the values of the ideal Western family were promoted abroad (Krasner, 2014). The image of the prosperous nuclear family with the woman in the home suggested capitalism’s superiority over communism.
Although the postwar era defined (white) middle-class American women in their roles as wife and mother, women’s employment continued to rise onto the next decade. In 1950, 1 out of 4 women working were mothers compared to 1 out of 9 in 1940. By 1967, 10.6 million women working were mothers with children under 18 (Dratch, 1974: 201, 204).
When the need of
federal-funded childcare was raised again in the 1960s and ‘70s, it continued
to face rejection. Similar child rearing methods with the nation’s Cold War
foe, the Soviet Union, was dismissed as an inferior approach to raising
children and unsuitable with American values; hence, the opposition to publicly-supported
collective childcare. Nixon summed this up when he vetoed the Comprehensive
Child Development Act of 1971 and stated that it would
commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach. (Little, 2021)
So direct federal support for daycare would continue to be targeted at poor and low-income women until the Reagan Era where a single block grant—the Child Care and Development Fund—was finally available. However, problems of daycares’ quality persisted due to a high rate of turnover among employees who faced low pay and poor benefits (Michel, 2011).
This is evidence that affordable quality childcare is key to closing the
gender gap. Despite this fact, the US still has not developed an adequate
childcare infrastructure and the problem of accessible childcare has been
further exacerbated by the pandemic.
Recent studies indicate that high-quality childcare programs provided through the Lanham Act programs led to successful long-term outcomes for many of the participating children, and for the mothers too, who experienced a substantial increase in maternal employment (Suskind, 2020). This is evidence that affordable quality childcare is key to closing the gender gap. Despite this fact, the US still has not developed an adequate childcare infrastructure and the problem of accessible childcare has been further exacerbated by the pandemic.
The US Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey (2021) showed that staying at home to take care of children is one of the main reasons why Americans have recently not been working (Kamal, 2021). While recovering from the pandemic, the absence of adequate childcare facilities due to many having to close down, will again pose a problem for securing the labor force, probably more for the female labor force.
In the UK, more than 100,000 parents have recently signed a
petition calling for an independent review of childcare funding and
affordability, while a recent survey showed that lack of access to childcare
hindered progress on gender equality (Topping, 2021). Similarly, in Canada, the pandemic had caused childcare to be one of
the main reasons for women leaving the workforce (Slugoski, 2021).
These childcare issues have exacerbated since the pandemic because, as professor of public policy and economics Betsey Stevenson points out, childcare is not dealt with as an economic issue, but instead as a personal or women’s issue (Harris, 2020). Nixon’s praise of a family-centered approach to child rearing allowed political anxieties to undermine the relation between the economy and childcare. As a result, childcare became a problem to be sorted out by individual families. Learning from World War II and the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time to finally look at childcare from a different perspective.
Top photo: "Milk time” at the day care center in June of 1943 (wwiimemorialfriends.org)
Updated 13 September 2021
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