Money  /  Retrieval

Who Took Care of Rosie the Riveter's Kids?

Government-run childcare was crucial in enabling women’s employment during World War II, but today the program has largely been forgotten.

Outfitted in dark blue uniforms, their heads wrapped in polka-dotted red bandanas, more than 2,000 people recently broke the Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of people dressed up as Rosie the Riveter. These record-breakers embodied the iconic depiction of Rosie: the fierce-eyed, muscular worker ready to contribute to the war effort.

But there is a less familiar image that circulated during World War II, in which Rosie, along with her rivet gun, carried a wailing child on her back. This image prompts a question the more familiar one doesn’t draw attention to: What happened to the children of all those real-life Rosies?

After all, as the author G.G. Wetherill put it in 1943, “The hand that holds the pneumatic riveter cannot rock the cradle at the same time.” Fathers were conscripted abroad or in the labor market, and, besides, the cultural mores of the time didn’t hold men responsible for caregiving. So if mothers were toiling in the workplace to keep the domestic economy going, they couldn’t also be at home caring for their children.

With this tension in mind, someone stepped up to care for the hundreds of thousands of children in need: Uncle Sam. During World War II the United States government operated a far-reaching, heavily-subsidized childcare program—the likes of which Americans haven’t seen in the seven decades since.

The federal government initially discouraged mothers with young children from working outside the home in support of the war effort, as when the War Manpower Commission declared, “The first responsibility of women with young children, in war as in peace, is to give suitable care in their own homes to their children.” Still, tens of thousands of mothers went to work anyway, whether to fulfill patriotic duties or out of economic necessity. Soon, employers pointed to female workers’ absenteeism as evidence of the need for childcare. Wartime needs and familial realities came to a head. Testifying before the Senate, one legislator declared, “You cannot have a contented mother working in a war factory if she is worrying about her children and you cannot have children running wild in the streets without a bad effect on the coming generations.”

Established in late 1942, emergency nursery schools became the tool to relieve anxious mothers and keep raucous children at bay. Funded through both federal and local money allocated by an amendment to the Lanham Act, a 1940 law authorizing war-related government grants, childcare services were established in communities contributing to defense production. These programs reorganized one kind of domestic labor—child-rearing—to enable another kind: paid labor in the domestic economy that helped fortify America against its foreign enemies.