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"Is it un-American for mothers to work?"

Mar 24, 2011 10:25 AM | 1 comment

There is no question that World War II had a major impact on the role of women in the work place.  Brooklyn's female task force was no exception to this trend--particularly given the amount of labor needed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard "to make the weapons to beat the Axis."

Brooklyn Daily Eagle Drawing, December 1945

For many, the choice to seek employment meant sacrifice--particularly when children were involved.  Enter the Mayor's Committee on Wartime Care of Children.  It was the duty of the committee to provide support, advice and childcare options for "temporary widows" (i.e. wives of soldiers) who were transitioning from stay-at-home mom to working single mother. 

Nursery for Working War Mothers, 1943

But support was not always eagerly given.  The motivations of working mothers were almost immediately called into question.  Working mothers were often "blamed" for encouraging improper child rearing; taking jobs away from unemployed men; and causing overcrowding in day care centers.  One female official implied that "many women were trying to evade their home responsibilities and make money under the guise of patriotism." 

Mrs. Genevieve B. Earl, a Committee member from Brooklyn, stated that the city "can't be a dumping ground for children."  Officials insisted that young women who were already employed in "non-essential industries" transfer their work to war industries, allowing mothers to stay at home.  This, of course, ignored the fact that many mothers needed to work for an income. 

Despite voices of disapproval, the Committee did provide support.  Social workers in offices located across the five boroughs offered counseling on this "knotty problem."  City and state funding was allocated through the Committee on Wartime Care of Children for the development of nursery schools and child care centers.  Such centers were operated by non-profits and citizen groups.  Government funding paid for 2/3rds of the operating cost and parents or private donations covered the remainining 1/3rd.  By 1944, there were 52 such centers serving 2,700 children between the ages of 2 and 10 in New York City alone. 

Members of the Committee inspect the Williamsburg Day nursery

In August 1944, a nursery at the Jewish Community Center at 681 Linden Blvd, which received funding from the Committee, was highlighted in the Eagle.  Each day, 25 children, all of whom had mothers working in war industries, adhered to a "busy routine" of playing, learning and eating (and, apparently, carpentry):

Young Artist

Stephen Grenitz and Anna Levenberg at play at the nursery

 Sherry Skudin and David Steur at the nursery

Tina Carsten sawing wood at the nursery

As quickly as the support for working mothers came, so did it disappear.  By 1946, the federal government stopped providing funding for child care.  New York was one of two states (California was the other) to extend state funding, but even the state funding dried up by the fall of 1947.

The assumption that men came home and went straight back to work was a naive one.  Many men never came home.  And many returned with serious injuries, illnesses or psychological traumas that prevented them from resuming their "breadwinning" duties.

As New York State considered cutting off funding for child care, a group of mothers and children protested in Brooklyn, arguing that the war had changed life at home permanently and that there was still a need for child care. 

Mother's Protest Closing of Nurseries, 1947

Funding continued to decrease after 1947, and the question of state and federal funding for child care continues even today.  But we must give credit to the working mothers of post-war Brooklyn for asking an important question of their government: 



3/27/2011 7:56:58 PM #

Nice article! Thanks.