Better Life Lab

Your Child Care Conundrum Is an Anti-Communist Plot

We begin with circle time, then move on to Leninist doctrine.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

Before I became a parent, this country’s lack of affordable, government-supported child care was something I thought about sympathetically every once in a while, in between long yoga classes and leisurely novel-reading. I always diagnosed this hole in our social services as a feminist issue—there aren’t publicly funded day cares because conservatives don’t want women to work.

But a few weeks ago, as I negotiated a change in my baby daughter’s day care setup and inwardly raged against our country’s sorry support for child care, I suddenly remembered reading historian Nancy Cohen’s 2013 piece in The New Republic about the role of red-baiting in the failure to pass universal child care in the early 1970s. Do we really lack good, publicly funded preschools not only because some people think women should stay at home, but also because some people are afraid of Communism? Maybe! At the very least, the government-run day care services the Soviet Union provided have shadowed our efforts to get a version of the same in the United States.

The first Americans to think and talk about Soviet day care were leftist feminists in the 1920s, who praised it as an exciting innovation. “The Bolsheviks believed that capitalism had created a new contradiction, felt most painfully by women, between the demands of work and the needs of family,” historian Wendy Z. Goldman writes. “Capitalism would never be able to provide a systematic solution to the double burden women shouldered.” Services such as day care and communal kitchens and laundries were the Bolsheviks’ way of putting into practice Marx and Engels’ ideas about eliminating the oppressive structures of the bourgeois family. S. Ia. Vol’fson, a Soviet sociologist, wrote in 1929 that the traditional family “will be sent to a museum of antiquities so that it can rest next to the spinning wheel and the bronze axe, by the horsedrawn carriage, the steam engine, and the wired telephone.” Historian Julia Mickenberg writes in American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream that many American suffragists and “New Women” “were drawn to the Soviet Union because it embodied a promise of the good life and explicitly included women’s emancipation in that promise.” (Disclosure: Mickenberg was one of my dissertation advisors.)

When American feminists visited the new nation in the 1920s, they wrote about what they saw in glowing terms. The Soviets set up “day nurseries” at a time when Americans would have known them only as charities operated to house poor children while their mothers worked. In a 1928 book, American visitor Jessica Smith described the day nurseries in glowing terms: “Wide sunny rooms, rows of cribs with gay coverlets, play rooms with slides and chutes and steps to exercise tiny limbs, great colored blocks, pictures on the walls.” Mothers could drop by to nurse their infants, and “a sanitary kitchen with a trained dietician” made “the proper food for every age.”

This beautiful dream of quality universal day care—if it ever truly existed—went sour quickly. As Mickenberg writes, “material shortages and deep-seated sexism within Russian society limited women’s gains.” By the middle of the 1930s, Goldman argues, “the process of forced collectivization created fresh streams of homeless, starving children, and rapid industrialization subjected the family to new and terrible strains.” Trying to get things back on track, leaders began to encourage Soviet women to return to the home, and female workers lost much of the ground they had gained in entering male-dominated fields. Workplace discrimination continued despite government regulations, and cuts in funding for day care followed.

During the same time period in the U.S., the Depression and then World War II forced a reimagining of mothers’ role in the economy. As more middle-class moms went to work, the idea that day care was “a welfare service for desperately poor single mothers” began to transform, historian Elizabeth Rose writes. The understanding had been that day care was simply custodial: a way to keep poor kids from cutting themselves with knives or falling out of windows while their mothers toiled at factories. Now, however, people started to think of day care as potentially educational or enriching. In this social climate, the Works Progress Administration created 1500 preschools, mainly as an employment scheme for teachers. These schools served 50,000 children between 1933 and 1943. It was the first time the government put money into early childhood care, with hopes that the successful pilot would lead to more permanent and extensive services. “WPA nursery school leaders expected their program to lead to public preschools for all young children,” historian Molly Quest Arboleda writes. During World War II, the Lanham Act funded child care centers (including some of the former WPA schools) that served as many as 1.5 million kids.

In the immediate postwar period, many women wanted to see the Lanham Act centers stay open. One activist fighting to keep public centers open in Philadelphia at the end of the war wrote to the Children’s Bureau: “We’ve won the bloodiest war in history, now let’s win permanent Day Care for our children.”

It was not to be. Molly Quest Arboleda found that many women involved in the WPA nursery schools, either as teachers or supporters, faced accusations of Communist sympathies. Susan B. Anthony II (the more famous Susan’s grandniece) came under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee for her work with the Congress of American Women, which had named the conversion of wartime day care centers into permanent social fixtures as one of its three main goals. Governor Thomas Dewey of New York called protestors asking him to keep child care centers open “Communists.” Elizabeth Rose found that many of those who wrote in to a Philadelphia Bulletin forum on publicly funded child care used anti-Communist language. One wrote, “America is built on the bedrock of family ties and we refuse to imitate the Soviet Union, where 6,000,000 children are in such centers while the mothers are in forced labor camps.”

The Soviet Union’s child care system was indeed expanding and becoming more systematized. In 1956, wanting more women to enter the workforce, Nikita Khrushchev’s regime started an early childhood education program that became an extensive network of kindergartens and nurseries. These day cares did (as American critics charged) de-emphasize parental involvement in children’s education, instead leaning on the theories of psychologists and pedagogues who were considered more up-to-date than parents. Psychologist Alison Clarke-Stewart writes that children’s activities in Soviet day cares were “the most highly developed and uniform in the world,” and that “nothing was left to chance in the curriculum—everything was planned and specified, even the temperature.” Children were taught “industriousness, aesthetics, character…group awareness, problem solving, and creativity.” Soviet day cares put a strong emphasis on cooperation and sharing, and “as soon as they could talk, children were…given training in evaluating and criticizing each other’s behaviors from the point of view of the group.”

These readily available, sophisticated, but highly standardized day cares made an impression on Western visitors wary of Communist centralization and indoctrination. One such impression may have led to the downfall of a possible American equivalent to the Soviet day care system. The Comprehensive Child Development Act, which got through Congress in 1971 before being vetoed by Richard Nixon, would have created nationally funded child care centers providing early childhood services and after-school care, as well as nutrition, counseling, and even medical and dental care. The centers would charge parents on a sliding scale. But Pat Buchanan, as special assistant to the President, convinced Nixon to veto the plan.

Brigid Schulte interviewed Buchanan about this decision for her book Overwhelmed, and he told her he’d visited the Soviet Union when the CCDA was being debated: “We went to see the Young Pioneers, where these little kids four, five, and six years old were being instructed in Leninist doctrine, reciting it the way I used to recite Catechism when I was in the first grade,” he said. Either this experience truly, deeply affected Buchanan, or perhaps he wanted—as the bill’s sponsor Walter Mondale later wrote—“to use the issue to rally cultural conservatives” and “create a little maneuvering room to make the China trip.” (If Nixon threw conservatives a bone in the matter of day care, he could more easily sell them his plan to normalize relations with Communist China.)

Whatever his motivation, Buchanan successfully influenced Nixon to inject anti-communist language into his veto. “Our response” to the challenge of child care “must be a measured, evolutionary, painstakingly considered one, consciously designed to cement the family in its rightful position as the keystone of our civilization,” Nixon wrote. “For the Federal Government to plunge headlong financially into supporting child development would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.”

When Mondale and his co-sponsor, Representative John Brademas, tried again in 1975, grassroots fundamentalists torpedoed the revised legislation. As Nancy L. Cohen writes, “an anonymous flyer circulated widely in churches in the South and West,” claiming that the legislation would give children fantastical rights “to sue their parents and organize labor unions.” Sally Steenland, director of the faith and progressive policy initiative at the Center for American Progress, said of the conversation over day care at the time: “I remember seeing books with these really alarming pictures of state-funded nurseries in the Soviet Union…Swaddled infants tightly wrapped in rows of beds side by side, massive rows, and it was impersonal and supposed to be terrifying. And it was like: this is daycare.” According to Cohen, Buchanan’s redwashing of day care was “a political hijacking so fabulously successful it wiped away virtually any trace of its own handiwork.”

When my friends and I bemoan our own child care conundrums, anti-communism is not the first thing we blame. But on the right, writers and pundits still invoke it to condemn the very concept of government-funded day care. Michele Bachmann, speaking on the floor of Congress in 2009, characterized “President Obama’s vision for child rearing” as “send that little baby off to a government day care center from the day that baby is born.” A cheerily designed website called Daycares Don’t Care features a history of day care that sports a clip-art hammer and sickle. It quotes a woman “who spent most of her childhood in Communist Poland’s daycares”: “The assembly line time table, with everyone having to perform together on cue…The grubby, institutional food. The absence of real contact with adults, which meant that fights and squabbles were usually settled on the survival of the fittest principle.” In the Federalist, political scientist Paul Kengor explicates the Marxist idea of the abolition of the family, describing the Soviet push to put kids in day care and the Supreme Court’s support for same-sex marriage as equally radical measures. On the website of Concerned Women for America, a blog post asserts, “True feminist ideology is steeped in Marxist thought. The government must redistribute wealth, control businesses to make them hire us, and even take on the responsibility of raising our children via government daycare for us to be equal.”

Does it help to know that some of the mindset keeping us from having government-funded day care is anti-communism, in addition to simple anti-feminism? I’m not sure. But I’m still making phone calls to figure out how to cover my daughter’s care on Fridays! That part I’m sure about.