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Working Mothers and the Childcare Dilemma

By Lisa Pasolli

August 23, 2016

Review By Esyllt W. Jones

The history of twentieth century childcare has received scant attention from historians in Canada. Lisa Pasolli’s compact study of childcare debates in British Columbia from the 1900s through the Harper era reveals what a historian can do to illuminate why we have the public policies that we do, and in particular why in 2016 we still lack universal childcare programs. Much more than connecting the chronological dots (which is itself an important achievement), Pasolli provides an analytical explanation for the rather discouraging continuities that shaped decades of public debate and marginalized the childcare and employment needs of women and families. Two well-sustained arguments stand out: the persistent de-naturalizing of women’s presence in the paid labour force and the strength of societal expectations that women’s place was “in the home;” and the fate that befalls social programs that are associated with the poor (who are most often women and their children).

As Pasolli’s work indicates, the fact that childcare was designed and viewed as public support and moral uplift for the impoverished — as a welfare policy, essentially — brought stigmatization and public ambivalence. In times of fiscal restraint and conservative approaches to public policy, childcare was vulnerable. Thus, broader goals for women’s equality across classes remained distant. At a time when many policy makers think universality is an irrational luxury, it might be wise to consider the impact of targeted approaches.

Pasolli begins her study by revealing some important connections between mothers’ pensions, first introduced in British Columbia in 1920, and attempts to create childcare services for working class mothers. These histories are usually treated independently from one another, and placing them side-by-side is fruitful. Maternal feminists promoted mothers’ pensions as a way of addressing the poverty of “deserving” women with children and without a male breadwinner. But the goal of mothers’ pensions was in part to keep women at home with their children, and prevent the perceived evils of working motherhood. The notion that childcare was second best to mothering was established early, as was the sense that public programs were for poor women only.

This set of attitudes, it turns out, changed remarkably little over time. Indeed, one of Pasolli’s most important insights is this consistency, despite the changing historical context for childcare debates. Challenges to dominant views gained traction during the late 1960s and early 1970s, as a result of the steady increase of women with children in the labour force, and the activism of “second wave” feminists, who argued that women should be able to choose to take employment and build careers. Concrete results in terms of childcare policy, however, remained modest. It is a caution against any “onward and upward” notion of social change.

Working Mothers and the Child Care Dilemma takes a fairly traditional approach to its subject. It is predominantly a top-down study, although there are some case studies of women’s advocacy efforts. I long to know more about these women, their lives, and their politics. Pasolli’s evidence suggests that the culture of class played a role in shaping childcare politics and perhaps in determining a lack of broader public support for childcare. And certainly, political parties such as the NDP when in government chose to put the needs of poorer working women first, especially in periods of fiscal challenge. Whether they made such decisions easily, however, is an important issue. It would be valuable to know more about internal debates on the left, especially within British Columbia’s NDP, which by the 1970s played an important role in increasing government support for childcare, despite, Pasolli argues, a limited embrace of feminist analysis.

Pasolli’s study will interest historians of British Columbia, which along with Quebec invested heavily in public childcare. At about 180 pages of reading, it is the perfect length for teaching upper year university courses. Students will find it clearly written, with a sustained central argument. A smart book on an issue we continue to wrestle with, and the sole monograph on the topic from a historian’s perspective, it will find its way on to many bookshelves.

Working Mothers and the Childcare Dilemma
Lisa Pasolli
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015. 270 pp. $32.95 paper