The Universal Childcare Debate: Rights Mobilization, Social Policy, and the Dynamics of Feminist Activism, 1966-1974
Law and History Review, Vol. 28, No. 3, August 2010
Posted: 28 Jun 2010 Last revised: 21 Nov 2017
Date Written: June 27, 2010
In specific historical circumstances, popular rights consciousness can challenge power hierarchies by fostering the imagination of transformed social structures as well as coalitions reflecting these alternate political realities. During the late 1960s through the decade’s turn, the right to universal childcare echoed as a political demand across diverse strands of the feminist movement. By translating personal needs into a rights claim, feminists politicized the issue of childcare in ways that challenged cultural constructions of the boundaries between the family, market, and state. The language of rights enabled activists to articulate the place of childcare in their visions for women’s liberation, African American freedom, and a just economy. Despite the tensions in their aspirations, the universal character of the rights claim enabled middle-class and working-class, white and African American, liberal and radical women to build coalitions on the basis of common policy interests. President Nixon’s veto of the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, however, exploited class-based fault lines in the childcare coalition. In this changed political context, feminist mobilization for the right to universal childcare waned. By uncovering the overlooked story of feminist thought and grassroots activism respecting childcare, this essay shows that childcare once held far more robust and radical political meanings than it does today.
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