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Even before COVID-19 shut down many providers, finding good, affordable childcare has been a longstanding problem for many families. Legal historian Deborah Dinner writes that back in the 1960s, feminists tried to address this issue. They saw childcare not as a market commodity or need-based social program but as a right.

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After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Dinner writes, women’s rights advocates created the National Organization for Women (NOW) to pressure the federal government into enforcing the law’s anti–sex discrimination provisions. NOW and other liberal feminist groups argued that without childcare, many women were effectively barred from full participation in employment, education, and politics. The group demanded childcare as a fully public resource comparable to public schools, available to all, regardless of income level.

Meanwhile, radical and socialist feminists promoted universal childcare as a way to challenge the basic place of women within the nuclear family. Many of them believed that childcare should be the responsibility of society as a whole.

Black feminists noted that both the liberal and radical feminist perspectives tended to focus on white, middle-class experiences. Black mothers often had very different concerns. They had to contend with expectations that they work for money while raising children, but without support that would make that possible. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm argued that many women were forced to rely on welfare because they were stuck on waiting lists at day care centers. On the other hand, the welfare recipients who led the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) called for recognition of their unpaid work.

“Activists in the NWRO critiqued the racial and cultural double standard suggesting that middle-class white women should act as full-time mothers, while black and poor women enjoyed no similar privilege and had to leave their children to work in menial jobs,” Dinner writes.

Some welfare rights activists demanded the right to high-quality, freely chosen childcare. But they were wary of being forced to put their children in care situations that they didn’t choose or have any control over. They also pointed to the importance of fair pay and good working conditions for childcare workers.

Despite their differences, Dinner writes, most feminists agreed that childcare should be a universal right. And they almost got something approaching what they wanted. In 1971, Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act. It would have provided free childcare for the lowest-income families, with fees on a sliding scale for everyone else.

But the very fact that it offered something approaching universal care stirred up opposition. The influential conservative magazine Human Events complained that, rather than just serving poor children, it would help “middle-income couples that would like to farm out their children when they pursue individual careers.” Others suggested that it would “destroy…the family” by putting “government in place of the parent.”

Ultimately, President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill. And even as women’s labor-force participation grew through the rest of the twentieth century, the idea of universal childcare never got that far again.

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Law and History Review, Vol. 28, No. 3 (August 2010), pp. 577-628
American Society for Legal History