Why America Gave Up On The Fight For A Family-Friendly Workplace, And Why It’s Starting Again


At the first-ever White House Summit on Working Families in June, President Obama took the podium to raucous applause, which only got louder during his speech. “Many women can’t even get a paid day off to give birth,” he declared. “That’s a pretty low bar. That we should be able to take care of.”

The crowd went wild, but he wasn’t done. “Child care…costs thousands of dollars a year,” he pointed out. “There are other countries that know how to do childcare well. This isn’t rocket science.” Cheers went up from the advocates, researchers, labor groups, and plenty of working mothers in the room.

After describing our lack of paid family leave and universal child care policies, he said, “They shouldn’t be bonuses. They should be part of our bottom line as a society.” The applause in the room reached a fevered pitch.

While some observers may have brushed it off as mere pandering to the liberal base — and women in particular — before midterm elections, the excitement around these statements is well warranted. Obama’s bear hug of policies like paid family leave and universal child care represents a break with a long, tortured past.


The United States very nearly had universal child care. In 1971, both houses of Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have provided child care at a sliding scale to every child that needed it, the first step toward a universal system. All it needed was President Nixon’s signature.


Nixon had been in support of child care, and in fact said that “so critical is the matter of early growth that we must make a national commitment to providing all American children an opportunity for healthful and stimulating development during the first five years of life.” A task force on women’s rights that he convened found that the lack of child care was the primary obstacle for women, and recommended creating “a system of well-run child care centers available to all pre-school children.”

But his signature, and the creation of universal child care, was not to be. On the advice of Pat Buchanan, his special assistant, he issued a scathing veto. Calling it “a long leap into the dark for the United States Government and the American people” and “the most radical piece of legislation” to emerge the current Congress, Nixon’s veto bemoaned the “family-weakening implications” of the bill. “[F]or 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,” he stated at the end.

“My view back then was that it was philosophically out of the question for the Nixon administration to support a major new welfare program like that,” Buchanan told ThinkProgress of his role in making sure Nixon vetoed the measure. “We disagreed with it on philosophical grounds and also economic grounds, and we made the case we should veto it on those grounds.”

Advocates were taken aback. As historian Nancy L. Cohen recently wrote in The New Republic, “the administration had helped to draft the bill; most of those in the administration who opposed it wanted Nixon to say only that it would be too costly to administer.” Walter Mondale, who had been one of the sponsors of the bill, later wrote

, “Even for Nixon, it was surprising.” As Kimberley Morgan, a professor at the George Washington University, put it, “People thought it was sure to pass, guaranteed.” It even had bipartisan support. “Democrats and Republicans were working together,” she said. “The issue, across party lines, was seen as a real vote winner.”


But for Nixon, it fit into his other priorities. “He was in the middle of trying to squash the War on Poverty programs” put into place by President Lyndon B. Johnson and the bill “was a continuation of those community action programs,” Morgan said. “He basically hated the War on Poverty and wanted to smash anything like it.” He was also getting flak from the right for opening up trade with China and the veto was a way to curry favor with those critics. “It was pure politicking on his end,” she added.

I think when we ran the sword through [child care] in 71, it may have killed it for more than half a century.

The intensity of the veto set the political stage for any efforts that followed. Buchanan knew exactly what he was doing. “I think when we ran the sword through [child care] in 71, it may have killed it for more than half a century,” he said.

And it was the beginning of a coalition on the right that would fight hard against any other attempts at this kind of legislation. “You see the very beginning of the new right emerging,” Morgan added. “The Milton Friedman-like critiques, the anti-communist Barry Goldwater thinkers, and some religious conservatives.” The religious right in fact didn’t as yet exist before the 1970s — religious groups were scattered between the two parties. But as the women’s movement rose, so did a coalition of religious conservatives.

Buchanan “connected Catholics with Evangelicals,” who had “never worked together like this, partly because there’d been strong animosity between the two groups,” said Sally Steenland, director of the faith and progressive policy initiative at the Center for American Progress (CAP). “It was very organized, it was well funded. This was not unprompted, spontaneous grassroots action; it was the religious right leading the charge.”

Those groups played on anxieties being kicked up by women’s changing roles. “It was the end of the era of a one-income family,” Steenland said. “Women from all ranks were going into jobs who had never been in jobs before… In some cases the religious right exploited it, but in other cases it was just a genuine anxiety.”


“It was one thing for professional women in the 70s who went to law school and said this is my career,” she noted. “It was another thing for secretaries and sales clerks and factory workers and waitresses whose jobs were pretty crappy and didn’t think of themselves as careerists and didn’t make that much either. But they had to work because their husbands weren’t making enough money anymore.”

Daycare became a flashpoint. “I remember seeing books with these really alarming pictures of state-funded nurseries in the Soviet Union,” Steenland recalled. “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.”

This anxiety peaked in the 80s when scandals around daycare centers were omnipresent. The media “ran endless scare stories about day care, replete with nightmare anecdotes of abuse and sobering statistics from leading social scientists suggesting that group care itself — even the very best kind of group care — could be harmful for children,” Judith Warner writes in her book Perfect Madness. In particular, research by Jay Belsky in 1986 that suggested that infants in full-time daycare had an elevated risk of behavior and social issues was blown out of proportion. He himself later clarified, “My purpose was not to castigate the institution — just the institution as it exists today in this country.” But that’s not how it was interpreted.

At the same time, the government didn’t create universal child care in the early 70s but did expand tax credits in the mid-70s and 80s to help parents who were finding private solutions. “That starts to build up the private market for child care that in essence sucks the wind out of the movement for child care,” Morgan said. “People find a way to get services.”


The issue of how the government could make life easier for working parents didn’t surface again until the long push to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which now grants anyone who works at a company with at least 50 employees the right to take up to 12 unpaid weeks off for the arrival of a new child or to care for a family member. It “was litigated throughout the Bush administration,” Neera Tanden, president of CAP, said, and it narrowly passed Congress in the early 90s. When President Clinton took office, “It was the first thing he passed,” she recalled.

In the early 80s…nobody was even uttering the words work/family policy or work/life balance.

But that was the culmination of a difficult, nearly nine-year fight. “In the early 80s, when it was first introduced, nobody was even uttering the words work/family policy or work/life balance,” said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, which played a big role in crafting the FMLA. “It didn’t exist.” And the climate was still hostile. “People thought this was an outlandish idea. They said we were crazy, this was like trying to introduce communism or socialism, it was going to be the demise of our free enterprise system, our capitalist economy, there were all sorts of predictions about job loss.” John Boehner (R-OH), now Speaker of the House, called the FMLA “another example of yuppie empowerment.”

“It took the building of a very, very broad coalition to begin to get traction,” Ness explained. “We had every kind of constituency group ultimately in that coalition.” Women’s groups like hers, which was then called the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, were certainly involved, but so were the Catholic Bishops, not a group known for its feminism, as well as labor groups, advocates for seniors and children, civil rights groups, and health and disability advocates. That range of voices ultimately made it a bipartisan issue. “It made it possible for folks to talk to the broad spectrum of policymakers,” she said.

Some wanted to speed up the process by focusing only on maternity leave, which they thought would be easier to get. “We said no to that,” Ness recalled, “because we really believed it was as much about allowing men to participate in family life as it was about enabling women to participate in work life.” That insistence on keeping all of the goals and constituencies together may have had more importance than they realized at the time. “Over the years men have become more involved in family life,” she said. That helped spur “the profound cultural change and change in expectations around what’s considered acceptable or desirable in the workplace” that followed after the bill’s passage and implementation.

“I think it was a huge game changer,” she said. “After that, we began to see more conversation about these kinds of work/family policies, and the more politicians started talking about them, the more positive feedback they got.”

That’s been true for Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). “It was the first bill I voted on when I came to Congress,” she told ThinkProgress. “Of all the legislation I’ve worked on, it’s the one I constantly get thank yous for from families.” Bill Clinton himself has said the same thing. ”To this day, I receive more thanks from citizens for the FMLA than any other single piece of legislation I signed into law,” he wrote in a Politico op-ed to mark its 20th anniversary.

But it didn’t spark a huge drive toward passing a work/family agenda. Child care was barely an issue. “[Clinton] signed the FMLA and then they basically wanted to do nothing more on this in the 90s,” GWU’s Morgan said. The major agenda item was health care reform, and that sucked up most of the attention, leaving no room for a big child care bill. “They didn’t want to touch [child care] with a ten foot poll,” she said. “It was very controversial because it aroused conflict about stay-at-home moms versus working mothers.”

Tanden, who worked on policy for the Clinton White House and was a senior advisor to the first lady, recalled that when Bill did address child care — expanding Head Start and the Child Tax Credit — “the right viciously attacked it as an expansion of the nanny state [and] undermining the family.”

There was a really powerful culture wars moment in the 90s where we were debating whether women should be working at all.

Those debates over working mothers were intense in the 1990s. “There was a really powerful culture wars moment in the 90s where we were debating whether women should be working at all,” Judith Warner said. As she outlines in her book, working mothers were “pilloried” endlessly by experts, politicians, and pop culture. “There was hardly any room for rationality at all in those years,” she wrote, “what with Dr. Laura’s diatribes against working mothers; conservative denunciations of the Family and Medical Leave Act…; films like Mrs. Doubtfire, which showed working mothers as self-obsessed and cold; Marilyn Quayle’s speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, which stated that mothers did not want to be liberated from their ‘essential natures as women’; and, of course, the rabid vilification of the ur-working mother Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

Low-income mothers arguably got it worse. President Reagan’s demonization of the welfare queen — low-income women of color living large off the government — continued into the 90s and helped lead to welfare reform signed into law by President Clinton in 1996. The bill responded to the idea that poor women were having babies to collect checks instead of working and defrauding the system, both hyped up stereotypes. It introduced work requirements in order to get cash assistance for the first time, and while Clinton promised that the government would help mothers with child care and other needs to get to work, that promise has been broken.


All the handwringing in the world didn’t change the fact that families needed two incomes to get by and women increasingly wanted their own careers. And that reality of women streaming into the workforce may have been the strongest catalyst for cultural change in how the country viewed work/family policies. “We were still fighting [about working moms] through the early 90s and arguably through the end of the 90s,” Warner said. “But in the past decade it has become an established necessity.”

“Something shifted by the 2000s, I couldn’t say when exactly,” Morgan said. “Maybe just the realities of so many women working, including lots of women with children who are Christian conservatives… led to the depoliticization of the whole working mothers question.” In 1979, less than a third of women worked full time, and even fewer mothers did so. By 2000, about 44 percent of women were in the workforce full time, including 46 percent of mothers.

The realities of so many women working…led to the depoliticization of the whole working mothers question.

At the same time, the demands at home weren’t just about raising children. “A tsunami of caregiving for elder relatives is also contributing to the demographic that makes people realize that caregiving is becoming more and more a daily part of adult life,” Ness pointed out. A 2007 poll found that one in five Americans was caring for an elderly parent.

“When you look at change on women’s issues historically, attitudes follow what people are already doing,” Warner pointed out. “It starts to seem ridiculous and change seems necessary.”

Change also started to trickle in at the state level. In 2004, California became the first state to pass a paid family leave program, and it’s been followed by New Jersey, which began its program in 2009, and Rhode Island, whose program went into effect earlier this year. Paid sick leave, which allows working parents to leave their jobs to care for a sick child without missing a paycheck or getting fired, was passed in San Francisco in 2006. Since then, Washington, D.C. passed a law in 2008, Connecticut and Seattle joined in 2011, and Jersey City, NJ, Newark, NJ, New York City, and Portland, OR all passed laws within the last year. States have also implemented universal preschool programs that help working parents find a quality place to look after their children. “With time, we’ve got working models in place,” Ness said.

These testing grounds have offered fertile evidence that they work without ruining the economy. A study of California’s paid leave program found that 91 percent of employers experienced either a positive impact or noticeable one and the policy reduced turnover, saving them $89 million each year. The vast majority of surveyed employers in New Jersey similarly report that the program hasn’t hurt their finances, while many said it has been positive. A number of studies of paid sick leave programs have found that they don’t hurt businesses or job growth and the majority of employers support them. Research on high-quality preschool programs finds that they improve outcomes for children and end up saving substantial amounts of money in the long run.

The issues have gotten some federal attention thanks in part to more women serving in Congress. The famous Year of the Woman in 1992 ushered in 24 women to the House and five to the Senate, the biggest jump in history. Another record was made in the 2006 midterms when two new women became Senators, making for the largest share of female Senators up to that point, and 12 new women became Congresspeople, plus Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) took the House Speaker’s gavel. “There are more women in public office now, and I think that is also helpful because people bring to office their life experience,” Ness said.

Carolyn Maloney attested to that. She has authored a very long list of legislation aimed at work/family issues during her time in Congress. “As a mother and a wife who has worked my whole life, this whole issue about balancing work and families, it’s very personal to me,” she said. “I worked on work/family bills my whole life because it’s something that’s really real to the life that I live.”

Another woman helped propel work-family issues forward in the 2008 election: Hillary Clinton. These issues didn’t enter the presidential debate during the Bush years, but they cropped up in 2007.

“Hillary’s first policy proposal was universal Pre-K,” Tanden, who served as policy director for the Clinton’s presidential campaign, noted. She also proposed a national paid leave policy, both of which Obama ended up proposing as well. “There was more discussion of these issues in the 2007/2008 race,” she said. “Hillary felt really strongly about these things as a woman candidate.”

Both candidates were also of course trying to win women’s votes. “Married women have never been constituents for the Democratic Party, but single women are,” Morgan noted. “These things sound really good to them.” That can obviously mean a lot of rhetoric without action once politicians are elected. But the fact that “they’re not afraid to talk about it is indicative of a kind of shift,” she added. “I think the taboo’s gone.”

I think the taboo’s gone.

And once in office, President Obama has taken some action on these issues. In his 2013 State of the Union address, he called for universal preschool for the entire country. He followed that up with $75 billion in new funding over the next decade in his budget a few months later aimed at creating that system. That was a “turning point,” Ness said.

He called for much more at June’s summit, including paid family leave, workplace flexibility, discrimination protections for pregnant women, and pay equality. The summit again represented more rhetoric given the current Congress, which is unlikely to pass any of these policies anytime soon. But as Ness pointed out, it was “a real milestone, to get to a place where our highest elected officials are actually embracing these issues.” And it’s why activists applauded his speech so vociferously — they’re finally climbing out of the hole Nixon pushed them into 43 years ago.

Adding fuel to the fire, Republicans may also be tentatively embracing the work/family debate in their own way. They pushed a bill called the Working Families Flexibility Act last year, and ahead of the White House summit they unveiled a package of bills aimed at working families. They released another, similar package of bills on Wednesday, with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), who led the group of Republicans, saying, “our workforce has changed, but our laws also need to reflect what is a changing workforce.” The ideas aren’t likely to do much, ranging from tax credits for cribs in home offices to measures that would end up weakening unions. But as Tanden noted, “It’s an advance to have conservatives claim the mantle of family flexibility, even when it’s slightly Orwellian.” That’s also a new turning point. “At least they feel the pressure to address these concerns of women and families. Whereas in the 90s, they had no anxiety about just opposing child care as an expansion of the nanny state.”

There may be the inklings of a coalition with religious conservatives and progressives on these issues. Charmaine Yoest, President of the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life (AUL) who has done past work on work/family issues, noted that her group doesn’t have the bandwidth to take them on. But they are issues she still cares about. “There really is connective tissue between work/life policies and the life issue,” she told ThinkProgress. “Because so much of it comes back to societal attitudes toward motherhood.” She pointed out that “the ideal worker is all designed around a kind of male approach to the workplace” that leaves little room for women to “invest time in particularly small babies.” While she doesn’t agree with spending more money on daycare, she pointed out that flexibility is important. That’s true in her own organization. “Every mom who works for AUL to one degree or another has negotiated some sort of flexible schedule,” she noted.

But some of those who killed off work/family leave the first time around still haven’t changed their minds. Buchanan hasn’t. “I don’t agree with another major federal undertaking,” he said when asked about how he viewed something like universal child care. “We’re talking about something that’s not remotely on the table.” But gone was the rhetoric around socialism and weakening the family; in its place were strictly fiscal concerns. “They country doesn’t have the money for any major national undertaking like this,” he explained.

Women’s rights advocates remain hopeful that the climate has changed enough, that people like Buchannan are far enough removed, people like Yoest are taking the helm, and some elected leaders have claimed the mantle, that these policies are taken seriously. “My hope is that these issues are central to the discussion in 2015 and 2016 in the presidential context,” Tanden said. “That’s also up to advocates. You have to create political, public demand for policy change.”

President Obama’s embrace of these policies has helped prod these things along.

“We’re not going backwards to a place where women aren’t in the workforce,” Ness noted. “We do move forward even when it’s not a fast road or a straight line. So I am optimistic.”