By Scott Daniels
A Young boy naps at the Swan Island Daycare Center, Portland, Oregon
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is rightfully credited with many accomplishments. She may in fact be the most hardworking, perhaps the most important presidential wife ever to occupy the White House. Other First Ladies have done great things and made significant contributions to our national life. Yet, Mrs. Roosevelt stands in a class alone, pushing her cautious husband into liberal policies he may not otherwise have adopted, nudging him to move more quickly on civil rights issues and toward racial equality, keeping him ever mindful of the plight of those deeply affected by the Great Depression, taking her own controversial stand on many issues, and showing up all over the globe during World War Two, visiting the injured, watching for corruption, bringing about solutions to stubborn problems, and earning herself, through very hard work, a singular place in the heart of her nation’s memory.
As the War unfolded, and FDR demanded—and got—a demonstrably impossible schedule of production of wartime materials, a two-pronged need for able-bodied people quickly became clear. On the one side was the obvious need for soldiers, sailors and airmen to train and ship off to fight the enemy in Europe and Asia. The shift of the fittest of the young male population away from home created the second prong, a need for workers to fill the war production jobs so necessary to make the fight a success. With a large chunk of the male population absent, the task of going to work in materiel production factories and munitions plants fell to women.
By the time of America’s entry into the war, gender roles in the country were still split along very traditional lines. Women were working very hard looking after their homes, children, and husbands, while also doing plenty in the community in volunteer work and regular participation in church services and functions. The shift in the labor force during the war, and the role women played in that shift, was nothing short of tectonic. World War Two brought about a revolution in the American economy and in who directly participated in the country’s economic life. The results of this revolution continue to play out in the 21st century. At the time, it created an immediate need for childcare.
In most instances, extended family stepped in to look after the young children of working mothers. Older women and men, unable to serve in military roles or in industries like shipbuilding or heavy munitions assembly, took care of the family children. But this stopgap, organic plan fell short, and Mrs. Roosevelt began to lean on business leaders—those who held fat government contracts—to include child daycare in their production plans. She met with immediate and stiff resistance, even from within the administration, even from the cabinet’s only female member. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins took specific steps to thwart Mrs. Roosevelt’s efforts. Mrs. Roosevelt pressed still harder, noting that while the debate went on whether women should work rather than stay home in their more proper role as mothers to their children, those mothers were already at work, more than three million of them entering the workforce before 1942 was out. The demographic had changed as well; working women had previously been young and single, now more than three-quarters of them were past age 30, most with young children to be looked after. The danger, Mrs. Roosevelt felt, was in the children having no one to fill that role at all, leading to neglect. In fact, national magazines began to report on specific instances in which children barely beyond grammar school age were looking after their own younger siblings full time with inadequate resources. It was becoming a national scandal.
The Kaiser shipyards in Portland, Oregon became the first model, building a daycare center, Swan Island, complete with play yards, schools, educational staff, and nutritionists, into its new facilities. It quickly expanded from daytime care to round-the-clock service to accommodate day and night shift workers. Henry J. Kaiser listened to what Mrs. Roosevelt had to say, paid attention to her descriptions of such programs in the United Kingdom. and went to work.
Henry J. Kaiser and Elanor Roosevelt. Image via the Oregon Historical Society
The Swan Island Center was a resounding success, and daycare centers began to be built around the country. By war’s end, more than 1.5 million children were cared for in centers near their mother’s place of work. The credit belongs fully to Eleanor Roosevelt.
As with many notions well ahead of their time, it would be decades before regular child daycare allowing mothers to earn a paycheck became accepted. The centers built during the war, as successful and well-conceived and implemented as they were, were largely shuttered and converted to manufacturing floor space soon after the fighting men returned home, rendering their hardworking wives summarily unemployed and back at home looking after their families.
This article relies in part on information to be found in No Ordinary Time, By Doris Kearns Goodwin. Simon & Schuster, 1994. As a look inside the relationship of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt during the war years, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.