I was stirring a pot of spaghetti sauce; holding one toddler, while the other clung to my knees and three others under nine were racing around our small kitchen in Des Moines, Iowa. It was 1971 and I had been lobbying for a piece of national child care legislation, The Comprehensive Childhood Development Act.
This was the first and last piece of national, comprehensive child care legislation on this issue to pass both houses of Congress, and when the call came in that it had been vetoed, I was stunned and disappointed. But the saddest part about my efforts back then was that I was not even lobbying on behalf of our family. I was fortunate enough that if I loaded my five children in two grocery carts and used a hand held counter to stay inside the $20/ week we budgeted for groceries, our family could live on our small income. But I knew too many mothers who could not...and that was devastating. They had to have a job to feed their children, but they had to have care in order to work
Gail Collins reminded me of this moment in her recent New York Times column, "The New Perils of Pauline", where she writes about the death of this 1971 bill, which in spite of it's truly bi-partisan support, was vetoed by President Nixon. It wasn't perfect, but when the veto came down, the door closed on the last national piece of legislation of its kind. Collins wrote the column as a warning to those who think we will get another shot at health care. We haven't yet had another significant piece of legislation on childcare, and it's almost 40 years later.
Having worked for over a decade now on getting women into leadership positions in the US (where the percentage of women leaders hovers at only 18% on average), I can tell you that we have paid a price. The lack of good early childhood education and after-school programs are a primary reason that our democracy and its institutions are not able to avail themselves of the only resource we have never fully utilized in solving our nation's problems: America's women.
The fight against the 1971 bill developed during the nascence of the social right movement. Walter Mondale, the bill's chief sponsor, heralded this as the beginning of the right wing agenda, with this newly energized group who crowed that the legislation would "undermine parents".
In truth, the failure of the bill to become law was about the fear that women would walk into the public world and abandon their private roles as mothers: fear that both men and women still have today.
And while today's anti-choice advocates talk about protecting unborn children through leaving abortion coverage out of the current national health care bill, at the heart of this debate beats the role of women and the politics of motherhood.
In 1971, I was a preschool teacher who took my toddlers with me to teach in a Montessori School. There I realized how important good early childhood education was for children. They thrive on interaction with each other. Teachers who have other adults around to support them (parents, volunteers, staff) thrive as teachers, and are then better able to work with children. We are a tribal group, and the notion of raising children alone in homes with one person, is not only a singularly modern notion, but a crazy way to bring up kids.
And not allowing women to determine the numbers of children they can safely bear and raise is a crazy way of saying we are protecting children. Protecting our families through providing adequate health care and good early childcare is the best way to protect children.
But, as a popular president once said, "oh no, here (we) go again": fighting the passage of a landmark health care policy using the bodies of women and the care of our children as pawns.