Good Day Care Was Once a Top Feminist Priority, and It Should Be Again

1971's Child Development Act would have established federally funded community centers, but President Nixon vetoed the bill and the movement lost steam.

Michelle Obama visits a daycare center in Virginia (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Jonathan Cohn's devastating piece on the inadequacies of American day care in The New Republic does exactly what good muckraking investigative journalism should do—it makes you ask why on earth we let this continue. As Cohn says, other countries (notably France) have safe, well-regulated, subsidized, affordable daycare for all. In contrast, daycare in the U.S. is expensive ($15,000 a year per infant on average) and of shockingly low quality. Child care workers are paid less than parking lot attendants, many are required to have little or no safety training. The anchor of Cohn's article is a horrific story about a group of children caught in a fire when their caretaker left to go shopping with kids asleep in the house and a pan of oil on the stove.

My knee-jerk reaction was to wonder where the hell the left in general, and feminists in particular, are on this issue.

This is a massive, dangerous, crushing problem that affects the lives of the vast majority of mothers in the United States. Again, one wants to ask—where are the feminists?

The simple answer to that question is that, though their success has been limited, feminists are, and have been, right where they should be on this issue. Second-wave feminism strongly supported child care reform. The National Organization for Women actually called for free 24-hour child care for all. More practically, liberal feminist groups helped to put together and lobby for the 1971 Child Development Act (CDA), which would have established federally funded community centers with a sliding fee scale based on income. CDA was a relatively modest program given the need, but it had broad support not only from feminists, but from advocates for the poor, trade unions, and employers who wanted to reduce absenteeism. However, as Cohn notes in his article, despite passing the Senate 63 to 17, President Nixon vetoed the bill.

Cohn does not explain at length why Nixon torpedoed the bill, but feminist historian Christine Stansell does. In The Feminist Promise: 1782 to the Present, Stansell writes:

A coalition of Protestant evangelicals and the John Birch Society materialized—out of thin air, it seemed—in a full-out campaign against the bill. Conservative columnist James Kilpatrick rose to the attack, charging that the CDA was designed "to Sovietize our youth... This bill contains the seeds for destruction of Middle America." It was a departure from the right's obsession with Communist subversion and the evils of integration . Nixon, looking to appease the far right wing of the Republican Party in the wake of his newly initiated policy of détente with China, vetoed the bill after initially giving it his full support. His stand against "government interference" in the family meshed nicely with his opposition to "government interference" in segregated schools.

The little-remembered battle over the CDA, then, was one of the first moves by the radical right into family issues—and one of its first and most lasting victories. Though there was initial outrage from mainstream outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times, it soon dissipated. And, as Stansell says, "Feminist attention was elsewhere, on the move to legalize abortion." NOW could have rallied protests when the CDA was defeated, Stansell says, but it did not. "I couldn't even get the members of NOW to make childcare a priority, or even an issue," Friedan said in her memoir Life So Far. That's obviously something of an exaggeration; childcare was an issue for NOW and other feminists. But it remained for the most part a secondary one.

To some degree, feminism's acquiescence in the sidelining of child care probably had to do with ideology. Parts of the feminist movement, and particularly radical feminists, were mistrustful of motherhood, and saw it as limiting and inimical to liberation. They were, as Friedan said somewhat ruefully, "rebelling against the feminine mystique which had defined women solely in terms of their role as mother or their sexual relations to men." Shulamith Firestone declared "Pregnancy is barbaric," while Ellen Willis admitted that "I saw having children as the great trap that completely took away your freedom." Mother and feminist Rosalyn Baxandall added, "Most radical feminists were not anti-child, they simply ignored children." Little wonder, then, that abortion rights seemed a more congenial cause than child care.

Feminists can, then, be faulted in part for our current child care mess. I think it's important, though, to point out that they are not primarily to blame. After all, even if they ended up putting more effort into the abortion struggle than into child care advocacy, the fact is that they pushed for both. It's not feminism's fault that John Birchers and the religious right were paranoid. It's not feminism's fault that Nixon was a craven opportunist.

In fact, I wonder whether child care's relative marginalization within feminism is the result of the failure of child care legislation as much as its cause. Political movements are often defined by their victories. It's well known that Roe v. Wade energized pro-lifers, but surely it was an even bigger boon for the pro-choice movement, which has, ever since, had something to defend, and a basic language of rights to defend it with. In contrast, while feminists have continued to work for affordable child care, that work has gained little traction, and (probably as a result) has not been as central to the movement as other causes.

The feminist movement for child care was squashed before it really got going. That's been bad for the country and bad for families, as Cohn shows. But I think it's also been bad for feminism, which would have been strengthened in many ways by being more closely associated with a fight for parents. Hopefully Cohn's article will lend urgency to this issue, and someday soon feminist's long fight to give America a safe, accessible, and affordable day care system will finally result in a victory—for feminism, for parents, and for everybody.