Society Finds New Ways to Care for Children
As mothers with children moved into the labor force to fill the void left by millions of men going to war, they encountered many problems, including finding good child care. During the war the number of working women rose nationally by 57% and in Oregon it tripled during 1942 alone. The largest gains in employment were for married women over 35 years old, most of whom were not responsible for the care of young children. While the federal government discouraged mothers with young children from working, tens of thousands of these women still took jobs in defense industries, adding to the child care problem. Their movement into the labor force drew scorn from many observers who thought they should stay home with their children. But even though the government "frowned upon" the development, it still moved forward with plans to support nurseries, day care centers, extended school services, and related programs. Meanwhile, officials at Kaiser shipyards in the Portland area built innovative day care facilities that drew national attention.
Moving Into the Workforce
Women had many motives for going to work during the war. Government promotional campaigns using billboards and posters aimed to move public opinion to support women's war work with the message: "Do the job HE left behind." Meanwhile, magazines, newspapers, movies, and radio programs exalted "Rosie the Riveter" as a war hero. ( Listen to the Four Vagabonds sing "Rosie the Riveter"
- via youtube.com) But women saw more than patriotism to drive them into the workforce. Economic necessity caused many to take jobs, not surprising since nearly one in five American families was headed by women. Some mothers sought work to supplement low family incomes. Wives of servicemen, for example, often had trouble feeding their families on their government allotment checks of $50 per month plus $20 for each child. Some mothers, after a decade of austerity during the Depression, saw work as a ticket to a higher standard of living. And, despite society telling them they were doing their patriotic duty by staying at home to care for their children, some mothers wanted to make a more direct contribution to the war effort or simply wanted to be in what they saw as a more challenging environment.Footnote
The federal War Manpower Commission recommended that women with small children be the last group called upon in labor shortages but did not forbid their employment. The resulting rise in their employment led to questions by some members of the Oregon State Advisory Committee on Child Care, Health and Welfare. In March 1943 the committee focused on the methods of unions supplying labor to shipyards in the Portland area. According to one committee member, the "unions do not make any inquiries as to whether or not women interested in employment have children." Another member of the committee who worked in the personnel manager's office of the Oregon Shipyards "made a study of women with small children employed in the shipyards and found that there are 830 mothers of children from the age of one to six years employed there."
Women were streaming into the Oregon defense workforce, particularly beginning in 1942. A.G. Johnson of the state child care committee, gave a report in February 1943 showing a steep rise. Portland's war industries employed about 7,000 women in November 1942 but was climbing at a rate that Johnson said would result in 40,000 women in June 1943. He went on to state that "a check of six shipyards reveals that the number of women employed in the shipyards has increased 25% in one month and that the number is going to increase more rapidly in the future." Other Portland area plants were showing significant gains as well. For example, at the time of the report "55% of the employees of the Columbia Air Craft industry are women."Footnote
The number of mothers also was rising according to the annual report of Council of Social Agencies: "Despite the recommendations of the War Manpower Commission..., thousands of young mothers in their twenties and thirties have accepted jobs in war industries and other businesses in Multnomah County. Of the 8,000 women employed at the Oregon Shipyards in January, 1943, 32% of them had children, 16% having pre-school children."Footnote
Other defense industry areas such as Pendleton, Hermiston and Corvallis also reported growth in female employment. The Pendleton area was projecting a 25% increase in women workers in the next five months while in Corvallis, near Camp Adair, "the employment office manager has reported that additional facilities are needed to provide care for children of soldiers wives who are anxious to gain employment. The present facilities are not sufficient for the number of children who will need care in the near future and there are no facilities to care for children under two years of age."Footnote
Coping With New Challenges
The rapid growth led to inevitable problems, both for new employees who were mothers and for employers. One state child care committee member tied some of the problem to the shortage of housing. He knew of two families with a total of 13 children living in a 4-room house in Portland: "This is a situation in which a mother of six children, who is employed in the shipyards, invited a father of seven children from New York to share the home with them." One teenage girl looked after the children while the mother was at work.Footnote
Nationally, stories told of "latchkey kids" who were left alone at all-night movie theaters while their mothers worked eight-hour shifts at defense plants. Another story told of two brothers, only eight and six years old, who "were kept out of school about six weeks to take care of two younger brothers, ages 3 and 15 months."Footnote
Meanwhile, Mrs. E.W. St. Pierre, director of civilian war services for the Oregon State Defense Council, visited shipyards in the Portland area late in 1942 where:
Officials also recognized the additional burdens borne by working mothers. Although fathers often shouldered some domestic duties, typically the grueling "double day" fell to the mothers who would do all of the housework, make child care arrangements, and work full time. Moreover, many families left behind their extended families when they moved to Oregon from other states and had not developed social networks that could help with child care. Therefore, it was not surprising that "women's absenteeism in the shipyards is four to five times as great as that of men due in large part to the breakdown of plans for the care of their children or the illness of their children, causing mothers to remain at home."Footnote
New Programs Offer Help
A number of programs arose to address the child care problems. Although some federal aid for child care was distributed before 1943, the major government commitment came in the form of the Lanham Act. The sprawling act covered a variety of wartime community services and included money to fund child care programs across the nation. The resulting centers, also funded with matching money from state and local governments, quickly grew in enrollments. By their peak in 1944, 3,102 centers were serving nearly 130,000 children. By the end of the war, Lanham Act programs had provided some care for up to 600,000 children.Footnote
A related federal program helped provide child care for school-age children. Started by the federal Office of Education in the fall of 1942, the Extended School Services programs helped to organize longer hours at schools to provide a "supervised environment." Many Portland area schools applied Lanham Act funds to care for thousands of children, usually age 5 to 14. By the middle of 1943, 40 Portland schools were open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week. The Portland Parks Bureau offered supplemental programs in the form of "26 recreational areas supervised by Park Bureau 4 housing areas, community centers, summer camps, etc." Vanport schools had school and after school programs for children from 5 to 14 years old. The program ran from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. seven days a week with attendance averaging about 200 per day out of a school population of 550 students.Footnote
The Kaiser Shipyards Think Big
Neighborhood groups, civic groups, and communities developed their own programs for dealing with the child care problem, however none was more innovative or gained more national attention than the ideas implemented by the Kaiser shipyards in the Portland area. But the Kaiser plan drew significant opposition in large part because it intended to place huge day care centers right next to the shipyards. Many more traditional Oregonians believed that mothers with young children had no business working when they should have been at home providing the proper environment for their offspring. However, they argued that if the mother had to work, then child care facilities needed to be based in neighborhoods, not next to potential strategic bombing targets, and that the centers needed to be small, not huge government subsidized facilities reminiscent of the "communist" system.
The critics were not just the everyday crackpots either. Saidie Orr Dunbar, chair of the Oregon State Advisory Committee on Child Care, Health and Welfare, argued strongly against the plan in May 1943: "We are devoting much time and careful planning to the sudden announcement of the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company that they propose to build three huge nurseries in connection with their three plants. The announcement stated that children would be accepted from six months to six years of age. None of us believe that manpower shortage actually demands the services of mothers of six month's babies. Child care standards are brushed aside and great damage will be done if we begin to industrialize six month old babies."Footnote
The Salem Statesman newspaper looked at the politics of the issue in an April 1943 editorial entitled "Nurseries At Kaisertown":
Operation of the Kaiser Centers
Despite the objections of critics, child care centers at Kaiser Company's Portland Yards and the Kaiser operated Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation moved forward from planning to completion in 1943. As the critics lamented, the centers were located "right at the entrance to the shipyards, convenient to mothers on their way to and from work." And, the centers were large, with each one of the 24-hour facilities caring for up to 1,125 children between 18 months and 6 years of age. While the federal government paid for the construction and most of the operation, through cost-plus contracts, the management of the centers was left to Kaiser employees. Although intended primarily to serve Kaiser's women workers, the centers were open to the children of any shipyard employee. Parents were to pay $5 for a six-day week for one child with a charge of $3.75 for each additional child.Footnote
The design of the centers featured a wheelspoke plan with a large grassy courtyard at the hub. This area had swing sets, teeter-totters, slides, monkey bars, sand boxes and a wading pool for play time. Surrounding the hub were 15 rooms, each measuring 30 by 15 feet and equipped for 25 children. The classrooms boasted large windows, many of which faced the shipyards so children could see where their mothers worked. Every classroom had its own bathroom with a personalized touch since "each child has a low hook for his towel, with his name or picture to mark the hook as his own. The Centers provide each child with towels, bibs, a toothbrush and a comb." Moreover, the child-size toilets and sinks made it "easy for children to keep clean, to be self-reliant and to learn how to do things for themselves."Footnote
An infirmary was available for children who were "mildly ill or below par physically" to receive care while their mothers remained on the job. Mothers with seriously ill children or children with communicable diseases were "called from work." Kaiser officials reasoned that "when parents know that there are well-equipped and professionally staffed facilities available at the Centers in case of illness or accident, they are less apt to worry about their children." The infirmary also provided immunizations against diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus along with inoculations for smallpox. This offering had the dual benefit of reducing absenteeism while promoting community health.Footnote
Each center had a large kitchen that provided every child with "all the food he needs during his stay at the Center, including his daily requirement of cod liver oil." The children ate in the "familiar atmosphere of their play rooms. A child nutritionist planned all of the meals including those made for the "Home Service Food" program. This effort provided pre-cooked packaged take-home meals for 50¢ each that included enough to feed a mother and one child. These also contained directions for reheating and for "supplementary salads and vegetables to make a full dinner." The meals would be ready for the mother to pick up along with her child at the end of her shift and went a long way in reducing the stress of planning, shopping, and cooking meals for already overworked women.Footnote
Children and mothers responded well to the program that Edgar F. Kaiser, son of company founder Henry J. Kaiser, championed. The children liked "coming to work" with their mothers and the convenient location of the centers were reassuring to parents because they knew their children were close at hand. From opening day in November 1943 until June 1945 the two centers provided a total of just under 250,000 child care days. Officials calculated that the centers made it possible for mothers to work almost two million hours in the shipyards, the equivalent amount of time needed to build six Liberty ships. Contrary to their many critics, the centers proved to be cost effective. Considering the resulting productivity gains, supporters declared they were patriotic as well.Footnote