Revisiting and Fulfilling the Feminist Promise
American, second-wave feminism immediately brings to mind fights over abortion, violence against women, and sexual objectification (notably, the protests at the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City). Much less frequently remembered is that early liberal and radical feminists — many of whom were involved in starting the National Organization of Women (NOW) — saw the provision of affordable and high-quality universal daycare as a major sine qua non of “women’s liberation.” Why? And what happened to strip this vital issue out of politicians’ platforms and feminist cultural discourse (let alone feminist activism en masse)?
Replying to the “why” question is fairly simple: Given that women are still often primarily responsible for home and childcare obligations, full participation in the public spheres of work, education, and politics has long hinged on solid social support and assistance in the relatively “private” realms of households and families.
For those who have children, daycare access (or lack thereof) poses ongoing and significant burdens. Relatives may or may not be available to take care of children when they are too young to go to school. Daycare may be unaffordable; it may corral an unjustifiable portion of a parent’s income than can be justified when weighed against possible work earnings or the attainment of educational degrees. Parents may not know how to find a good provider for their children (a problem easily rectifiable if quality public options were available and publicized).
As feminists grow more attuned to concerns about intersectionality — namely, how race and class, among other social differences, compound gender-based concerns — the lack of universal, high-quality daycare in the United States has begun to highlight the effects of growing socioeconomic inequalities on and between women and families. Middle- and upper-class women may be able to afford to hire a “private” childcare provider (or “nanny”), but this option is laughable for most of those situated at the working-class and poorer ends of the American economic spectrum.
In most other advanced industrial countries, parents across classes benefit from this important social provision. As early feminists realized, to be truly effective, daycare must be a universal social benefit.
Today, then, scholars like the contributors in this series can point to the most advanced industrial countries and the host of social assistance they provide for family support — from generous parental leave to excellent daycare for pre-school children. That the United States does not provide such comprehensive support makes it an outlier among socially wealthy countries. And it is a problem that, in turn, may well affect other “outlier” statistics related to women’s ability to achieve full and equal public participation. For example, whereas the United States was relatively ahead of other countries in the 1970s in terms of women serving in national legislatures, by 2019 the Inter-Parliamentary Union reported that this figure had declined sharply — to a hard-to-believe 78th in the world, lagging behind Europe and Afghanistan.
What happened, and what can be done to reverse this worrisome gender-related trend that led to my diagnosing a “rise and stall of American feminism” from the 1980s through the 2010s? In referring to a “rise and stall,” I focus on how, with regard to politics but also other issues like reproductive justice (i.e., access to abortions), feminist progress began to plateau or even decline in the 2010s. However, I went on to call my recent book *After the Rise and Stall of American Feminism* because this trend is now reversing: the #MeToo movement may well have initiated a new burst of feminist activism and cultural consciousness with its focus on the problems of sexual harassment and violence against women across lines like class, race, sexuality, and age.
By extension, this may be the perfect time to return to the early feminist issue of universal daycare.
As I investigate in *The Rise and Fall of American Feminism*, this may owe to another set of increasingly outdated divides between “bread and butter” economic and cultural “sexuality” related issues for which feminists have often advocated separately. Now, as thinkers and activists identify and collapse such divisions, we seem to have a chance to actualize, address, and redress a gamut of multi-faceted concerns.
Feminist policymakers, sociologists, economists, and legislators have made good headway in advocating for, and attaining, better parental leave in some places in the United States; in New York City, for example, universal pre-K became guaranteed for all families in 2017, under Mayor Bill DiBlasio. Still, it is clear that far more needs to be done to realize what early second-wave feminists envisioned: all women and families having the means to meet their desires for full social and economic participation and for taking unequivocally good care of their family and dependents.
As sociologist Kathleen Gerson writes in The Unfinished Revolution, young men and women want egalitarian relationships in private and public. Both/and, not either/or.
It’s time for the generous, universal, affordable, and high-quality daycare for everyone, regardless of class and across other social differences, envisioned at least as far back as the 1960s. In 2019, the success of #MeToo suggests that social media is a good platform for advocating, discussing, and promoting an across-the-board range of feminist issues. It is well worth taking to feminist blogsites, penning op-eds and magazine articles, making podcasts and journalistic appearances, and talking to and pressuring politicians – all to reissue this foundational social problem and reframe it as one aligning with other feminist concerns including reproductive justice, political and economic participation, and less sexist cultural imagery.
In sum, feminists have good reason to conclude that saying ‘me too’ matters here as elsewhere. By now, it should be clear that daycare fulfills one shared need of women and families while simultaneously highlighting the meaning of intersectional feminism (given socioeconomic equalities between classes that have worsened, too, since the 1990s). Daycare is and remains a significant feminist goal, like many others, the gender revolution portended and ignited. And it is a measure that can and should be realized in the United States of the 2020s, just about a half decade after the second wave insisted on its relevance.
— Lynn Chancer is Executive Officer of the Ph.D. Program in Sociology at the Graduate Center and Professor of Sociology at Hunter College of the City University of New York. She is the author of After the Rise and Stall of American Feminism: Taking Back a Revolution published in 2019 by Stanford University Press.
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