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  • Children’s Interests/Mothers’ Rights: The Shaping of America’s Child Care Policy
  • Margo Horn
Children’s Interests/Mothers’ Rights: The Shaping of America’s Child Care Policy. By Sonya Michel (New Haven: Connecticut, 1999. xii plus 410pp. $35.00).

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 mothers.”

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 [End Page 461] 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...

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