Last month, The Atlantic published an article, Who Took Care of Rosie the Riveter’s Kids?, that explores the historical background of public childcare, going back to the necessity for publically funded daycare in WWII when the presence of women in the workforce boomed when men were off at war.
The program, under the Lanham Act, allowed for war-related government grants to cover childcare programs, and in every state aside from New Mexico there were childcare centers where thousands of kids – between 550,000 and 600,000 thousand by the end of the war – were fed, educated, and looked after while their mothers worked.
There were, of course, major issues with the Lanham Act: economically disadvantaged women and women of color had been working long before WWII and it wasn’t until middle class white women joined the workforce that the need for childcare became an issue of national public policy, and the overall cultural attitude was that children are meant to be raised in the home and not shuffled to have playtime with strangers. The stigma never went away entirely, and at the end of the war, women were expected to pack in their jobs and return to the home for childrearing and raising. Even with President Truman and public figures like Eleanor Roosevelt advocating for the program, it was promptly cut in 1945 at the conclusion of WWII.
Shortcomings aside, “the Lanham program is of landmark importance.” The program changed the way that we approached early childhood education, and “addressed the needs of both children and mothers.” The Lanham program is admittedly the first step of what is happening now in conversations about public childcare, and “what has long been treated as a private concern for mothers is now being recognized as a matter of national policy.”
The most fatal flaw of the Langham program is arguably that it never existed exclusively for women and children, but was dictated by the needs of men, and those at war whose jobs needed to be done while they were overseas serving their country. In their absence, women could work. Publically funded childcare was permissible only then, and removed abruptly after the war when the family shifted back to its traditional structure.
But this is an issue that continues to develop. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proposed, in 2011, the Early Child Care Program, stating that “in a society with our resources, it is unconscionable that we do not properly invest in our children from the very first stages of their lives.” Rewind the tape back 66 years, where Eleanor Roosevelt said, about the termination of the Lanham program in 1945, “these children are future citizens, and if they are neglected in these early years it will hurt not only the children themselves, but the community as a whole.” Here’s hoping it doesn’t take another World War to invest in the wellbeing of children as well as, ultimately, the wellbeing of their working mothers.
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