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In the late stages of last night’s Democratic-primary debate, the presidential candidate Senator Kirsten Gillibrand brought up a short newspaper article published in 1981.

The article, written by one Joseph R. Biden, was an op-ed arguing against a tax credit that would help families pay for child care. Biden, then a senator representing Delaware, made the case that by encouraging more high-earning parents to send their kids to day care, such a tax credit would, among other things, lead to “the deterioration of the family.”

On the debate stage, Gillibrand insisted that this was evidence of Biden’s opposition to working mothers; Biden defended himself by focusing on his fiscal objections to the tax credit and by pointing to his own political record when it comes to women (which, coincidentally, Gillibrand has previously praised).

But the document in question is a strange one—a perplexing collection of roughly 600 words that veers from fiscal critique to moral outcry, and pulls off on the side of the argumentative road to bemoan “the cancer of materialism” that convinces Americans that they need to send their kids to day care so that they can work more and buy more stuff.

Nearly 40 years after its publication, the op-ed is a bit hard to parse. What precisely did Biden mean when he asserted that it was a lapse of “personal responsibility” for couples to send their kids to day care so that they could both go to work? Was he talking about the shortcomings of working women, or of American parents in general? Biden’s op-ed could be interpreted in multiple ways, but situating it in the context of the early 1980s can shed some light on what he might have been trying to say, and what his blind spots were at the time.

Let’s start with the headline, as Gillibrand did: “Congress Is Subsidizing Deterioration of Family.” That headline, like the rest of the piece, makes no mention of women or mothers—just of parents and the family unit. The wording of a sentence about “evad[ing] personal responsibility” refers to “a couple,” not “a mother.” Elsewhere, he speaks broadly of “Americans—especially members of my generation.” The responsibility-dodging parent is, in the op-ed, left ungendered.

Biden did clarify, in comments to a newspaper reporter at the time, that he didn’t “care whether in a modern marriage you want the man or the woman to take that responsibility. That has to be resolved by each couple individually.” Which suggests that his omission of the words mother and women in the op-ed was intentional.

But it seems like the implication, in 1981, would have been assumed to be that the responsibility of looking after kids fell to mothers. The percentage of women who worked had risen steadily in the preceding decades, and it’s not hard to read Biden as accusing them of abandoning their domestic post.

When I talked about the op-ed with Elise Chor, a political-science professor at Temple University who studies early-childhood education, she said she couldn’t tell whether Biden was being “pretty careful not to say ‘women,’” or whether he figured a reader at the time would have taken it as “an implicit assumption” that women were at fault. But of his clarifying comments to the newspaper reporter, she said, “At least he was thinking about [the issue of gender], which was probably a lot more than other people at the time.”

She also noted, however, that if he did have women in mind when he wrote the article, “it didn’t seem to quite occur to him that women might want to work to have a sense of achievement. But that being said, I don’t think this is a particularly odd [attitude], especially given the time.”

Biden is probably the only person who can truly settle the question of what he meant, and my requests to his campaign for more information went unanswered. Meanwhile, Meredith Kelly, Gillibrand’s spokesperson, wrote to me in an email,“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to read between the lines and understand which parent was most likely to stay out of the workplace in 1981—and even today—if affordable childcare isn’t available.”

Putting aside the issue of gender for a moment, Biden does separately make an interesting—in the sense that it is not often heard today—argument that American families should look after their own instead of paying others to do so for them. “The day-care centers and nursing homes blossoming across the American landscape are monuments to our growing unwillingness to accept personal responsibility for those to whom we owe the most—our children, our parents and our grandparents,” he writes.

But this position makes more sense given the state of research on child care in the 1980s, according to Terri Sabol, a professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University. “Right now, we sort of take it as a given that high-quality early-childhood education is good for children,” Sabol told me. “But … it wasn’t until the ’90s and early 2000s that we began to get to the rigorous evidence suggesting that child care is not only not bad for kids, but can be good for kids.” So that stance, Sabol said, “wasn’t out of left field.”

Chor agreed that Biden’s op-ed in many ways is the product of its era. “But,” she said, “I wouldn’t say that we’ve completely changed how we view women’s place in the labor market, especially mothers’ place in the labor market. It’s just that it’s sometimes not vocalized [now].”

Ultimately, Biden’s op-ed is vague on who should care for whom. It’s not clear, reading his article now, whether he thinks the responsibility to look after kin should fall equally on men and women.

In truth, American society still hasn’t come to a consensus on this. “That was a long time ago,” was how Biden explained his op-ed to Gillibrand during the debate. It was a long time ago, and it wasn’t.

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