The XX Factor

Republicans Face a Conundrum: Support for Working Moms Means Support for Child Care

Can you really say you support working mothers if the idea of day care offends you?

Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

As I wrote on Wednesday, Republicans appear to have crafted a concrete strategy to derail the narrative that they’re waging a war on women: Hold up married working mothers as exemplars of “pro-life” values and subtly insinuate that it’s only those other women—those single moms and childless women—who need legal abortion and affordable contraception. The strategy wisely acknowledges that having career ambitions and a need for a paycheck is simply a reality for modern women. But it also upholds anti-choice values by claiming, often quite directly, that no woman should worry that being unable to control her fertility might conflict with her work demands. It’s a smart tactic that could definitely help Republicans rebuild their image with women, at least married mothers, all the while pandering to anti-choice activists. 

Unfortunately, those very same anti-choicers are one of the biggest reasons that this strategy could fall apart. It’s a group that can’t stop tying its hostility to reproductive rights to attacks on working women. Ben Johnson, writing for LifeSiteNews, the premier anti-choice online media hub, lambasted President Obama’s State of the Union address on Wednesday. No, not because Obama made any pro-choice statements—he largely avoided the topic—but because of Obama’s support for expansive preschool programs:

The president also revived his advocacy of federally funded preschool, something he mentioned in last year’s State of the Union, saying he would “pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need.”

Studies show the results of Head Start, an $8 billion federal program, to be underwhelming, having no lasting effect on children who attend.

“In August 2013, Vanderbilt University released an evaluation demonstrating that children who went through Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K (TN-VPK) Program actually performed worse on cognitive tasks at the end of first grade than did the control group,” said Heritage Foundation expert Lindsey Burke.

Setting aside this misinformation about the supposed harms of preschool (which is actually quite good for kids), it’s clear that Johnson is tapping into a long-standing hostility on the right to any program that makes it easier for mothers to hold down jobs. This hostility dates back at least to 1971, when Richard Nixon vetoed a bill to create federally subsidized universal day care, denouncing “communal approaches to child rearing” and praising the “family-centered approach.” (That’s a nice way of saying that mom should give up working to stay home with the kids.) His attitude persists to this day, with Republicans routinely attacking programs like Head Start because they believe that mothers should stay home instead of work. 

Johnson’s article highlights the paradox that threatens to undermine the Republican war on the war on women: It’s hard to tell women they don’t need to worry about unplanned child-bearing derailing their careers when your party rejects any effort to make it easier for women to both work and have children. During the State of the Union, President Obama bluntly expressed his support for pro-mother workplace policies: “She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job.” In order to look like they support working mothers, Republicans will have to agree with Obama on this front. Unfortunately for them, their actual policies are ruinous to the very working mothers they claim to admire.