"Talkin' day care blues": motherhood, work, and child care in twentieth-century British Columbia.




Pasolli, Lisa

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Today, advocates argue that a universal child care system is necessary for mothers to be able to take part equally in the wage-earning that is the hallmark of citizenship. Why has such a system never been a serious political possibility in twentieth-century British Columbia? In seeking to answer this question, this study looks to important moments in the province’s history of child care politics and, in doing so, untangles the historical understandings of work, motherhood, and social citizenship that have precluded the existence of universal child care in British Columbia’s welfare state. Throughout the twentieth century, British Columbia’s child care politics hinged on debates about whether mothers should work, what kinds of mothers should work, what kinds of work they should do, and what the state’s role was in regulating their relationship to their family and the labour force. As these debates played out across the century, several themes were relatively consistent. The belief that women’s social rights derived from their mothering work was one, and this notion achieved political expression in the passage of mothers’ pensions legislation in 1920. At several moments during the twentieth century, and gaining prominence especially in the 1970s, advocates and activists argued that all women should have the right to work, and that a universal child care system was their right as wage-earning citizens. In terms of policy-making and program provision, however, the story of child care politics in British Columbia is largely one of failure for working mothers. In their relationship to the state, working mothers had two main options, both of which left them limited access to a version of social citizenship constrained by gender and class. On the one hand, gender and class norms translated into welfare policies that encouraged stay-at-home motherhood and precluded the possibility of publicly-provided child care. On the other hand, when a mother was in the labour force, her paid work was assumed to signal some kind of family failure, with “failure” measured against the ideal of a male-breadwinner, female-homemaker family. In those cases, public child care (and to some extent mothers’ pensions) was considered an appropriate welfare service for “needy families” because mothers’ wage work fulfilled important welfare goals: the preservation of the work ethic, guarding against chronic dependency, and meeting the demand for female labourers in marginal occupations. Yet even though mothers’ work was an obligation of their welfare benefits, they were still considered second-class workers and their wage-earning was not a positive source of social rights. Gendered and classed understandings of paid work, in other words, was the source of an uneasy relationship between working mothers and the state. Neither dominant welfare paradigm included room for a child care system that recognized mothers’ rights as paid workers. The result was an unrealized version of social citizenship for working mothers and for all women in twentieth-century British Columbia.



Child care, Working mothers, British Columbia, Social welfare