Unraveling ECE’s Thorny Knot Is Constrained by Its History

Blog Post
April 16, 2019

To facilitate interaction among ideas presented in Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators, Series Editor Stacie G. Goffin offers opening comments. For readers new to the Series, her introduction explains the series' intent.

As Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators nears its conclusion, Edna Ranck, a longtime historian of ECE, addresses what she considers an insufficiently understood explanation for ECE's thorny knot: society's attitude toward working women and its contribution to public policies that have-- and are--constraining ECE's development as a field of practice.

Maurice Sykes was right – Early childhood education’s (ECE) thorny knot – education and preparation, compensation and status, and diversity and inclusivity – is affected by racism, classism, and sexism. The field’s history proves it. For over two centuries, ECE’s child care sector has been trapped in controversy over issues revolving around beliefs and attitudes toward working mothers, resulting in the knot we are trying to unravel because of its entanglement with:

  • The federal government’s role in relation to families, especially poor families;
  • Women’s roles in society, particularly working mothers, with bi-furcated views tied to race; and
  • The purpose of out-of-home care and education of young children, whether for all children or for children deemed “disadvantaged.”

I have been in ECE for over 50 years but only recently have I become aware of just how pervasive maternalism ideology is. As defined by historian Sonya Michel, maternalism is a politics that accepts the notion that mothers properly belong at home with their children. Historically, mothers were, and too often still are, denied social rights and civic responsibilities. Fueled by race, gender, and class, they’ve been kept from earning wages in the workforce, and their domestic work continues to go unrecognized as having public economic value. The results have not only negatively affected mothers and children; they have compromised ECE as a field.

ECE’s Thorny Knot is Inseparable from its National History

With this ideology as our backdrop, we can begin seeing how the strands of ECE’s thorny knot emerged, became entangled with one another, and continue to be sustained by maternalism’s prevalence:

  • Rather than provide child care support for working mothers, the federal government has chosen to rely on a class-driven child care system, contributing significantly to ongoing fractures between child care and early education;
  • Mothers in more affluent circumstances, especially if white, have been expected to be altruistic care providers, which ECE has historically supported via co-op nursery schools, leading not only to insufficient compensation but to the public’s disinterest in compensation as a significant issue; and
  • Since mothers, white mothers in particular, “belong at home,” their children are not seen as needing out-of-home care, leading to ECE’s “education” component being viewed as a compensatory intervention.

Our Nation’s Maternalism Is Alive and Well

Between December 2018 and early March 2019, seven articles in prominent newspapers and magazines appeared with titles like these: “The Special Misogyny Reserved for Mothers,” “Why Fewer U.S. Workers Are Parents,” and “The Real Mommy War Is Against the State.” Additionally, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren is working on a bill for universal child care and early learning. Though well named, it perpetuates the stigma of tying ECE to poverty: Only low-income children will attend free; others will pay on a sliding fee scale.

As a field, ECE needs to take advantage of what this mini-history lesson teaches us and figure out how to transcend it. I see public policy as the way forward: We need to work with others to overturn maternalism, and we need to advance policies that value working mothers by supporting their child care needs in ways that maximize their families’ lives and the well-being of their children.

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