As one of our nation’s most iconic symbols of women’s empowerment, Rosie the Riveter has captivated hearts and minds for decades. But, as we teach and learn more about Rosie’s legacy this Women’s History Month, there is one fundamental part of her narrative that we need to bring into the mainstream—her child care story.
Aside from the three women who inspired the iconic character—Rosalind Walter, Mary Keefe, and Naomi Parker Fraley—nearly six million real-life Rosie’s entered the workforce during World War II, including millions of mothers. These women worked jobs that were critical to win the war and keep the U.S. economy afloat—taxi drivers, factory workers, telephone operators, and waitresses. To ensure that women could serve in these vital roles, for the first and only time in its history the U.S. government provided universal child care at just $0.75 per day.
The Lanham Act of 1940 allocated $1.1 billion (in 2019 dollars) for child care—enough for 3,000 child care centers in 49 states to serve between 550,000 and 600,000 children. These centers provided 24-hour child care, hot lunches, snacks, and even dinner to provide high-quality care for children with mothers working nonstandard hours. The long-term benefits were clear years later—children who received Lanham Act care earned higher salaries, were more likely to graduate from college, and less likely to receive public assistance.
The program was phased out by 1946 despite millions of mothers choosing to stay in the workforce, including millions of Black women who were a significant part of the workforce before the war. The Lanham Act was a critical step forward for child care in America, but closing the program after the war pushed child care two giant steps back. Canceling the Lanham Act child care program with no alternative devalued women’s work and perpetuated a belief that child care is a private, women’s issue that is only accessible in times of crisis.
This has set the stage for child care policy. Congress has funded child care programs only to address specific crises, leaving working families with a patchwork of inadequate supports. Due to decades of underfunding, assistance programs reach just one out of every six children, while the cost of child care in many areas exceeds the cost of tuition at a public university.
So, how do we fix this mess? First, we need to talk about child care as the public issue that it is, not the private issue that years of government neglect have convinced us that it should be. We need a nationwide conversation that brings child care out of the shadows of public policy—as many 2020 Presidential candidates have already begun doing by publishing comprehensive child care plans.
We must continue to advocate for policy solutions that expand access to high-quality, affordable child care. A universal, Lanham-Act style solution is just one of many. In the years since World War II families have relied on a range of child care options beyond traditional center-based care, including home-based providers, family, friends, or neighbors. Any solution to the child care crisis needs to address complex situations and support the unique needs of the families that access them. The Child Care for Working Families Act is one such solution.
And finally, we need to work together to develop a greater sense of appreciation for working women—inside and outside the home. Women make up 51 percent of the population and 41 percent of family breadwinners. But the high cost and inaccessibility of child care is literally driving women out of the workforce and stagnating economic growth—costing families $8.3 billion each year in lost wages.
In the name of equity and economic prosperity, we need to recognize that women’s work is just as critical during peacetime as it is during war, and we need to enact comprehensive child care policies that help children and families succeed. As Rosie would say, “We Can Do It!”