It was August, 1945. In Europe, the Second World War had barely ended; in Asia, the peace was less than a month old. But already the U.S. government was making plans to demobilize the unprecedented war effort it had assembled over the previous half-decade. That month, the government announced plans to shut down the system of federally-funded childcare centers that had sprouted across the country to support the legions of “Rosies” working outside the home in the war effort.
The announcement sparked protests across the country, and in California, it launched a movement to save the system. That’s according to Dr. Natalie Fousekis, a historian at Cal State Fullerton. Fousekis will be presenting her research at The Maritime Center in Richmond today, as part of the National Park Service’s program, “Caring for Rosie’s and California’s Children.”
The Maritime Center was built in 1943 as part of the federal childcare system, said Lucien Sonder, of Richmond’s Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park. The park service has restored the building and recreated a preschool classroom as it would have looked in the 1940s.
“The government reluctantly created childcare centers during World War II” to enable women to enter the workforce, said Fousekis. The system served 25,000 children in California alone. But with the war over, the government saw no need to sustain the centers, making it impossible for many mothers to continue working. Childcare, then as now, was a necessity for mothers who wanted—or needed—to work outside the home. So as childcare centers shut down across the country, Fousekis said, a coalition of mothers and educators in California organized to convince state legislators to keep the system running.
“None of them had a lot of political experience,” Fousekis said. “They all had to learn to navigate the legislature, and convince a group of mostly male legislators to fund childcare at a time when they were talking about how women should be in the home.”
Women organized a massive letter-writing campaign, and used their days off to travel to Sacramento. The result was that between 1946 and 1963, California was the only state in the country with a publicly-funded childcare system.
“[I’m] really interested in what gets average citizens to get off the couch and take action,” Fousekis said, “and how these women who were really far removed from the centers of power were able to create a public childcare system where there wasn’t any elsewhere in the country for 25 years.”
Fousekis interviewed many of the women involved in the effort, including an active parent’s group in Richmond. “They had documents literally in their closets that had been sitting there for 30, 40, 50 years,” Fousekis said.
Her book tells the stories of women like Mary Young, who became pregnant during the war; she never married the father, a soldier. She moved to San Francisco and struggled to find safe childcare while she worked, at one point discovering that a caregiver had left her infant alone. Young lied about her daughter’s age to get her into the public childcare system and was recruited by other mothers working to sustain the system. “Every day off she had from 1950 to 1965, she was going to Sacramento,” lobbying officials to keep the program going, Fousekis said.
In the 1960s, the federal government once again began funding childcare, as part of the federal “War on Poverty.” But the federal program linked childcare to the welfare system, limiting it to only the poorest families. Suddenly, many of the working-class women who had fought to sustain the program were no longer eligible. “If you’re wealthy, you can afford good childcare, and if you’re really poor, there’s [programs available],” said Fousekis. But for everyone else, she said, it became “really difficult to find quality childcare.”
Caring for Rosie’s and California’s Children
When: Saturday, May 18
Where: Maritime Center, 1014 Florida Avenue (corner of Harbour Way)
Program details: Self-guided tours of a WWII preschool classroom exhibit will start at 1 p.m., followed at 2 p.m. by a film screening from the UC Berkeley Regional Oral History Office and a talk by Dr. Natalie Fousekis of California State University, Fullerton.