The Little-Known History of Your Desperate Summer Camp Struggle

Here we are in 2023 paying the literal price for Richard Nixon’s veto because he wanted to look tough on communists for the 1972 election.

The Little-Known History of Your Desperate Summer Camp Struggle

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One more Announcement: I’m seriously considering offering some courses focused on issues facing mothers + caregivers at work this year and I’d love your feedback on my ideas. Everyone who takes this 3 min survey by Feb 21 will be entered to win a $50 gift certificate. TIA! Now, onto the main event.

This January, I marked my calendar to be right at my desk at the 9am opening to register for summer camp. As year-round paying members to our beloved JCC, we get early access to this signup, but even with this preferential treatment, spots fill up instantly and the waitlist kicks in about 5 minutes after opening time. Because we want our 7 year-old to have something to do most of the summer while my husband and I work for pay other than play video games, we’ll likely spend close to $4,000 on camps in 2023. The care situation for our toddler twins is even more bank account-crushing. We want to enroll them in half-day pre-school next year, and for 10 months a year it will cost around $11,000 for both of them. For 3 hours of school a day. We briefly considered a wonderful preschool walking distance from our house with similar hours that would have totaled over $16K a year for two, but alas, they are so in demand, despite being on the waitlist for over a year they don’t even have spots for us.

Probably many of the readers of this newsletter have had the same feelings of despair about childcare costs and have been stressed around how hard it is to get. When discussing the childcare crisis, the 0-5 age range rightfully gets a lot of attention. But we need to keep the drumbeat going on the reality that when you start dealing with aftercare and summer camp, the problems continue even after kids are enrolled in school.

Instead of being resigned about this, I want people to be angry about it. You may have a vague awareness that things aren’t this bad in other countries, but I think too few people know our own American history about the deliberate decisions that led us here.

In 1967, the National Organization for Women put childcare at the center of their Bill of Rights, asserting that quality childcare should be seen as a public good and funded similarly to libraries, parks, and public schools. Childcare access was positioned not only as an essential service for the increasing numbers of mothers entering the workforce but more generally for women to contribute to society in any way they saw fit. Universal childcare wasn’t initially envisioned as merely a tool to enable women to work in traditional 9 to 5s. It was conceived as a necessary right in order for women to have time for themselves – for their own interests, activism and self-actualization outside the lonely drudgery of raising children in a nuclear family.

Organizers like Rosalyn Baxandall opened childcare co-ops like Liberation Nursery on the Lower East Side of New York City, which worked both as childcare but also as a hub of community organizing. Radical feminists worked on the local level for funding to support their vision, which included deliberate challenges to family structure, like pushing for access to 24 hours a day of care, for infants to young adolescents, regardless of income or marital status. Black feminist Dorothy Pitman Hughes (who passed away a month ago, RIP) organized 150 community organizations in New York to get funding and challenge antiquated childcare center regulations. Inspired by the protest movements of the times, these feminists would block streets and traffic in Manhattan to create makeshift protest nurseries to demand public funds. They had sit-ins with small children and mothers, and staged protests where they changed diapers on politicians’ desks.

The tiniest activists via Getty

In 1969 and 1970, public opinion polls showed the general idea of the government shouldering some or all of the cost of childcare enjoyed wide bi-partisan public support, including from President Richard Nixon. But as discussion of federal legislation made its way through Congress in 1971, factions split over the best path to success. Some anti-poverty activists felt the priority should be funding free childcare to those with the most need, while others thought the coalition should be built around universal access, regardless of income. According to the excellent book Feminism’s Forgotten Fight: The Unfinished Struggle for Work and Family, accusations flew that the universal childcare position centered the needs of middle class and wealthier white women “who just wanted to go to art galleries” at the expense of the needs of poor families. Radical feminists’ push for childcare as a tool for women’s economic self-sufficiency and personal liberation didn’t jibe with more mainstream liberals. The demand for funding 24-hour child care was met with suspicious fears of maternal abandonment. In 1971, The Comprehensive Child Development Act which would have allocated billions of dollars for a national daycare system passed both houses of Congress.... And was vetoed by Richard Nixon.

It’s not just heartbreaking that he vetoed it, but what’s devastating is that the way he framed his veto basically stalled efforts for decades for federal support for childcare. While some conservatives feared locally-controlled childcare centers would promote integration and socialism or just be too expensive overall, Nixon took a wider angle as he aligned himself with the emerging anti-feminist, “pro-family” New Right. His veto was written by Pat Buchanan, who was an advisor to several Republican presidents and a prominent 20th century Conservative. In an interview with Brigid Schulte for her book, Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time, Buchanan describes being horrified by visiting a Young Pioneers center in the Soviet Union where he thought children were being brainwashed with Leninist doctrine in communal settings. He rallied Conservatives against the bill on the grounds that it would “Sovietize” America by diminishing the role of the family and lead us towards totalitarianism.

Nixon’s veto message warned of a “radical” bill that would “commit the vast moral authority of the national government to the side of communal approaches of childrearing over and against the family-centered approach.” The message was that universal child care was Unamerican, an affront to individualism and the nuclear family, with plenty of subtext sprinkled in that daycare also went against traditional Christian values. “We wanted to not only kill the bill,” Buchanan told Schulte, “we wanted to drive a stake right through its heart.”

And they did. Even 52 years later, some of the difficulty of our childcare reality is still dogged by beliefs (spoken or unspoken) that mothers should be at home taking care of their children, and that there’s something inherently suspicious, unnatural and even unamerican about daycare. Since the nuclear family is supposed to reign supreme, any issues people face around childcare is a private, personal “choice” that the government shouldn’t get involved with. Even if we can say with confidence these fears are unfounded and the economic reality of 2023 makes the lack of childcare investment a nonsensical public policy position, these beliefs are still ingrained in our culture.

So now dear readers, here we are, paying the literal price for Richard Nixon’s veto because he wanted to look tough on communists for the 1972 election. Rather than fighting for the idea that childcare should be widely available and affordable for all to enjoy, like a public park, we now must spend our time fighting for summer camp spots at 9:01am on January 27th to even get access to pay thousands of dollars so we can work and support our kids, contribute to society and the economy. Ain’t that some shit. Anyone else ready to stage a diaper-changing protest on Joe Manchin’s desk?

The research from this newsletter was supported in part by The Better Life Lab at New America AND our Double Shift members. Support feminist, independent journalism and get great perks like audio newsletters by becoming a member at $7/mo.

Just for fun, I’m going to open up this week’s members-only thread tomorrow to the ENTIRE list, because I wanna hear from everyone on this: What’s the wildest, saddest, hardest, most ridiculous, most expensive thing you’ve done to secure childcare? Thanks a lot, Dick Nixon. Check your inboxes tomorrow at noon and everyone can chime in.

More on the Legacy of 1970s Daycares: Read my friend Jessica Winter’s fantastic David vs Goliath piece in The New Yorker,Why Is Columbia Kicking Out a Beloved Preschool?

A Great Doc: As part of my research into the care movement, I just watched Crip Camp on Netflix and learned SO much about the disability rights movement. 10 stars.

One more time: I’m seriously considering offering some courses focused on issues facing mothers + caregivers at work this year and I’d love your feedback on my ideas. Everyone who takes this 3 min survey by Feb 21 will be entered to win a $50 gift certificate. TIA!

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Let’s Start Dreaming Bigger

Reading about our feminist foremothers has made me want to encourage us all to dream bigger about what care and motherhood COULD look like in America, not just focus on tiny incremental changes. Join me for an inspirational, collaborative workshop/conversation with other Double Shifters. This is gonna be a special one!! Members will get details in your inbox and a calendar invite.


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