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A Mother's Job: The History of Day Care, 1890-1960 (review)

From: Journal of Social History
Volume 34, Number 2, Winter 2000
pp. 463-465 | 10.1353/jsh.2000.0150

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Journal of Social History 34.2 (2000) 463-465

Book Review

A Mother's Job:
The History of Day Care 1890-1960

A Mother's Job: The History of Day Care 1890-1960. By Elizabeth Rose (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. xi plus 275pp.).

Americans' ambivalence toward day care forms the starting point of this important study. Tracing the history of day care in Philadelphia from the 1880s to the 1950s, Elizabeth Rose tells a story of both continuity and change, of a growing acceptance of the benefits of early childhood education coexisting with an older association of child care with charity. Ultimately, Rose argues, Americans' ambivalence toward day care is bound up with their contradictory views about mothers working outside the homes.

The first half of Taking on a Mother's Job focuses on "Establishing Day Care"; Philadelphia had fifty day nurseries by 1920. Despite their diverse origins in Sunday schools, kindergartens, and social settlements, all day nurseries in Philadelphia had a common purpose: to get the children of working mothers off the streets and into a surrogate home. Considered to be a form of charity, day nurseries were characterized as "foster mothers" for children whose mothers had no choice but to work. Supporters consistently played down the fact that day care enabled women to become breadwinners because they did not want to encourage maternal employment. Instead, they portrayed day nurseries as providing needy children with a home-like setting that was preferable not only to an orphanage, but even to their own homes.

Like most scholars of maternalism and the welfare state, Rose stresses the differences between the elite reformers who founded day nurseries and the women who used them. Unlike maternalists, who saw mothers' employment as an abdication of maternal responsibility, working-class mothers saw wage-earning as a means of fulfilling their family obligations. Unlike reformers, who viewed day nurseries as agents of Americanization, immigrant mothers took pride in their own identities. Jews, African-Americans, and Catholics formed their own day nurseries in their own communities. They used other day nurseries only if they had no other choice and kept their children there briefly. (On this point, more might be said about underemployment and irregular work schedules, which characterized women's employment in this period.)

In the long run, Rose argues, maternalists "ended up reducing the options" available to low-income mothers because of their class bias and conventional views about the home. (p. 9) Two of maternalism's principal accomplishments -- the professionalization of social work and the enactment of mothers' pension laws -- were particularly detrimental to day care. Social workers' emphasis on individual case work limited the number of families who could use day nurseries and underscored their pathologies. Mothers' pensions, by trying at least in theory to keep poor mothers at home with their children, hindered women's efforts to achieve economic self-sufficiency through employment.

Rose's use of case records gives readers some feel for life in the day nurseries, but her emphasis is on the discourse on day care. In a revealing comparison of day nurseries and nursery schools, she contrasts the idea of day care as welfare for the poor with day care as education for more affluent children. The growing popularity of nursery schools after the 1920s shows that it was not the group care of young children, but mothers' poverty and employment status that led to the stigma against day nurseries. Nursery schools and day nurseries both presumed that mothers were incompetent to raise children without expert guidance, yet while nursery schools gave affluent children an individualized education, day nurseries provided custodial care to the children of the poor. Nevertheless, Rose argues, nursery schools contributed to a more positive view of day care by insisting on the value of early childhood education.

The second half of Taking on a Mother's Job examines the small but steady steps toward the acceptance of day care between 1930 and 1960. In the 1930s, WPA nursery schools, although established to provide work for unemployed teachers, set a precedent for government involvement in child care. The framers of the New Deal never considered day care as a strategy for alleviating economic...


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