Paid Leave for Dads: A Feminist Issue

While women have made significant headway when it comes professional equality, a shift of a similar magnitude hasn’t happened on the home front: Traditional gender roles persist at home, despite many couples’ best efforts to divide the work more equally. As Anne Marie Slaughter told my colleague Becca Rosen, men who take on the role of primary caregiver are often stigmatized rather than lauded. Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill, economists at Pew Research Center second this theory in a recent piece in The New York Times, writing, “The gender revolution has been a one-sided effort. We have not pushed hard enough to put men in traditionally female roles—that is where our priority should lie now.”

For gender equality to work, men need to take on these roles as often and as enthusiastically as women do. But that’s been a slow transition. In a 2013 article Alexis Madrigal, suggested that fear, time, and stigma, play a big part in preventing men from making the effort necessary to learn how to be a child’s main caretaker. I recognize the fear Madrigal is talking about. When my niece was only about a week old, my brother had to head back to work. I showed up to help my sister-in-law out. One evening my brother came home and took to his nightly routine of hanging out with his new daughter. But she wouldn’t stop crying. After his arsenal of tried-and-true baby-calming techniques failed he just stared at his crying infant. After seeing this, his wife came taking the baby into another room to try to calm her. I laughingly asked my brother what baby-soothing strategy he had just employed, baby telepathy perhaps. He half-smiled, shook his head and said, “I just didn’t know what to do.”

The Next Economy


“If you’re only gonna be out of work for two weeks, what’s the point in working through the hard parts of figuring out a child? It’s much easier to just pass the kid back to Mom and let her deal with it,” Madrigal wrote. But because he stayed home for nine weeks, he had both time and incentive to figure out the things that originally flustered him: how to efficiently change a baby, feed a baby, and soothe a seemingly inconsolable baby. My brother, too, has figured it out and is now just as likely to be the one taking care of both big and small parenting tasks as his wife is. Research suggests that young dads do in fact want to take time off and be more active participants in caregiving. But when men don’t, either because of lack of opportunity or lack of desire, those tasks continue to fall to women, whose careers suffer as a result.

Getting comfortable in the role of caregiver is huge not just for parental confidence, but for families as a whole. Studies have also shown that dads who get involved in taking care of their children early on wind up being more involved going forward. And for households seeking equal partnership both professionally and personally, being able to trade off on the role of primary caretaker is critical. Without paternity leave, dads face a major hurdle in being equal partners at home, even if they want to be.

Yet between 2010 and 2014, the share of firms offering paternity leave actually dropped, according to Slaughter’s research. What would happen if men had more opportunities to sharpen their caregiving skills?

A new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that when given paid leave, many men will be more willing than expected to jump into the role of caregiver.

The study looks at the changes in paternal leave taking after the implementation of California’s paid family leave policy in 2004. Researchers found that once dads were eligible, they were 46 percent more likely to take time off for a new baby, and they took longer leaves. But perhaps most significantly, the number of men who took leave while their wives returned to work climbed by 50 percent. “The increase in father-only leave-taking means that providing CAPFL to fathers—in addition to mothers—increases the total number of days that at least one parent stays home with the infant,” the researchers found.

The increase of father-only leave time is especially important when it comes to considering the gender-wage gap, which grows for each group of women around the time that they start taking leave from work in order to care for new babies, and their male colleagues, traditionally, don’t. In order to close that gap, both policy and male partners need to embrace change.

Working at JCPenney on Black Friday


I just wanted to go to Greece. See the Parthenon and drink wine with my buddies in the Religious Studies department at the University of Oklahoma where I was in school. But I needed $1,200 to make that happen. Rather than ask my parents for the money, I applied to be a seasonal employee at JCPenney. They accepted me immediately—I’d just come off a summer stint working at another location. I was to work in the catalog department and my first day would be the day retail employees dread most: Black Friday.

The best thing about working in the catalog department is that you don’t have to deal with long lines of customers waiting to check out. Occasionally, some would trickle over when they realized we could perform the task as easily as any other checker, but mostly we only saw customers if they wanted to order an item or to get a free box. The latter was actually more difficult than the former.  

Customers were allowed one free box for each item they purchased. There were three sizes: small, medium, and large. Small would fit a necktie. Medium would fit an average piece of clothing and large would fit a heavy coat or blanket. As you might imagine, medium boxes were by far the most popular. And soon enough, we ran out.

I was standing (sitting wasn’t allowed) at the desk when a woman approached and asked for medium boxes. “I’m sorry, but we’re all out of medium boxes today,” I said. “What do you mean you’re out of medium boxes?” she replied.  She wasn’t quite irate but she wasn’t happy either. “We just don’t have any more to give out,” I responded. I’d realized throughout our interactions that this woman looked somewhat familiar. Did she attend my church or work at a school I’d gone to? “What’s your name?” I asked. “What do you mean, what’s my name?” she said. “You look familiar. I think I may know you.”

She told me her name and I realized the connection immediately: She was a friend of my mom’s! I told her how I knew her and her entire manner changed. She smiled. She asked after my mother and my family and she stopped caring whether she went home with her medium boxes.

That one interaction changed how I think about class and what it’s like to work in the service industry. When I was a nameless 20-year-old at the JCPenney’s counter, a customer didn’t care how she treated me. But once I was a daughter of a friend, she was warm and perhaps embarrassed at her previous behavior.

I worked that job until New Year’s Eve. I made my $1,200. But instead of going to Greece as I had planned, I used it to attend the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women instead.

The Feminist Asylum That Redefined Women’s Mental-Health Treatment


On a shaded lot in a quiet residential enclave in the La Crescenta valley sits a collection of Spanish Colonial cottages. These days, the only people who set foot on the Glendale, California, property are the caretakers who tend the peacefully empty grounds, and the groups of visitors who come through on guided tours. But for much of the 20th century, the lot was home to the Rockhaven sanitarium—a feminist institution for mentally ill women, founded as an antidote to the prison-like atmospheres of the asylums of the time.

In the 1920s, when Rockhaven was founded, running a sanitarium was a lucrative business. Scores of sanitariums had popped up around La Cescenta, modeled after the French sanitarium movement; any home could be transformed into an asylum for people with mild mental illness, the homeowners collecting money from wealthy patients as they prescribed them sunshine and dry air.

In practice, though, many of these institutions treated their patients as poorly as the notorious public asylums of the time—there were no laws governing their operations, leaving the residents of these sanitariums with few legal protections. Some homeowners threw up vaulted tents on their property in order to cram in more patients. In one of the more well-known cases, a La Crescenta sanitarium called Kimball held the actress Frances Farmer against her will after she declared herself to be a communist and an atheist, diagnosed her with paranoid schizophrenia, and treated her with electroshock therapy and insulin.

Patients at the state-run asylums of the time generally fared far worse—and the growing fascination with eugenics meant that many of them were also forcibly sterilized.

Rockhaven was different. It was founded in 1923 by the former nurse Agnes Richards, who had spent much of her career working in asylums in California. Determined to create a kinder, gentler alternative to the abuses she had witnessed, Richards used a thousand dollars she’d saved to purchase a small found-rock cottage on a lush, tree-lined estate in an area that was then called Verdugo City. Within a year, Richards had 24 “ladies”—never called “patients”—and was expanding the estate rapidly.

A Newspaper Written Entirely by Mental-Health Patients


A place like Rockhaven—one run by and for women—was especially significant at a time when new and dangerous ideas about women’s sanity were taking hold. During Prohibition, as many young women were drawn to the danger of speakeasies, alcoholism among females rose dramatically. But nobody knew what to do with female alcoholics, and many were involuntarily committed. At the same time, women, having just won the right to vote, were seen as more dangerous, and the State Lunacy Commission committed women liberally, often for flimsy or manufactured reasons.

Even a disgruntled husband wanting to leave his wife without a messy divorce could present his case for his wife’s insanity and win. Richards had seen more than one previously sane woman driven insane by degrading treatment inside the asylums.

Joanna Linkchorst, the head of the historical coalition Friends of Rockhaven, says many of the family members who’d placed their mentally ill mothers or sisters in Rockhaven had been so accustomed to degrading treatment that they were shocked by the results of Richards’ methods.

“There’s a story of a woman who called to check on her mother, who was snarling and biting when she brought her in. She said, ‘How is my mother?’ They said, ‘She’s doing great!’ And the woman said, ‘No, no, my mother is so-and-so.’ And they said, ‘We know, and she’s doing great!’” Linkchorst said. “Two weeks of someone doing this woman’s hair, getting her up and getting her dressed, and the local school kids coming over to read to her, and it was like she was a completely different person.”

The Rockhaven dining room (Friends of Rockhaven)

In fact, the residents of Rockhaven often threw parties, dressing up in their best gowns. They attended picnics in the community and went out to dinner as a group. To the ignorant observer, it was often impossible to know that the women would end the evening by returning to their home at a mental hospital. Richards treated the residents as her friends and once traveled the world with one of them, bringing back rugs and gifts and decorations for the rooms.

Richards’s daughter sold Rockhaven to new management in 2001, and it remained open until 2006, when the property was purchased by the city of Glendale (officials are currently considering either selling it or turning it into a museum). Today, once a month, a group dedicated to preserving the heritage of Rockhaven’s progressive history meets to offer limited tours of the property, now owned by the city of Glendale. Linkchorst and the local historian and writer Mike Lawler lead the tours, taking visitors down winding cement pathways adorned with rose bushes, past the statues of sunbathing women that dot the property, and through the ornately decorated, wallpapered rooms. Linkchorst says the only time people are disappointed by Rockhaven is when they walk in expecting gruesome tales of mistreatment and hauntings by restless souls.

“Sure, we have ghosts,” says Lawler, who often writes about Rockhaven and its enduring residents. “But it’s a pretty pleasant haunting.” Every so often, he says, old cards or rosary beads will appear in rooms—not really the ghost stories one imagines from an old asylum, but then again, this wasn’t the typical asylum.

When Linkchorst and Lawler lead their tours, they encourage visitors to take photographs and to share what they’ve seen. The legacy of Rockhaven, they say, is this: At a time when women with mental illness were treated in all the wrong ways, this place did something right.

“Dignity,” Linkchorst says. “It makes all the difference.”

Texas Women Are Inducing Their Own Abortions


“I didn’t have any money to go to San Antonio or Corpus [Christi]. I didn’t even have any money to get across town … I was just dirt broke.”

That was the response given by a 24-year-old woman in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley when asked by researchers why she had attempted to terminate her pregnancy on her own, without medical help.

Between 100,000 and 240,000 Texas women between the ages of 18 and 49 have tried to end a pregnancy by themselves, according to a pair of surveys released Tuesday by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, a University of Texas-based effort aimed at determining the impact of the state’s reproductive policies.

The figure was found by asking an online, representative sample of 779 women whether they themselves or whether their best friends had ever tried to self-induce an abortion. Of the Texas women surveyed, 1.7 percent said they had performed an abortion on themselves, but 4.1 percent of them said their best friend had or they suspected she had.

The most common method reported was by taking the drug Misoprostol, also known by the brand name Cytotec. Other reported methods included “herbs or homeopathic remedies, getting hit or punched in the abdomen, using alcohol or illicit drugs, or taking hormonal pills.”

The finding is important because the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, that concerns abortion law in Texas. The court will decide the constitutionality of a 2013 law requiring the state’s abortion clinics to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers and for their doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

At the time, most of the state’s clinics didn’t meet these requirements. It’s too expensive for them to make the necessary renovations, they say, and there are not enough nearby hospitals for every abortion provider to gain admitting privileges.

As a result, Texas now has just 17 abortion clinics, compared to 41 in 2012, and almost all the remaining clinics are in major cities. If the Supreme Court upholds the law, seven more clinics will likely close, leaving just 10 in operation for the 269,000-square-mile state.

As Kim Soffen reported in The New York Times’ Upshot blog, “the average Texas county is now 111 miles from the nearest clinic, up from 72 miles in 2012. This is substantially higher than the national average outside Texas, 59 miles.”

The survey from the Texas Policy Evaluation Project found that self-induced abortion was more common among women who had trouble obtaining reproductive services. Women were more likely to report having tried it if they had experienced difficulty getting birth control or Pap smears or if they lived near the Mexico border. Not only are some border towns located far from abortion clinics, but Cytotec is more widely available in Mexico.

The survey authors say self-induced abortions may become more common if more abortion clinics close. “Given that the populations we found to be most familiar with abortion self-induction are among those that have been most directly affected by the closure of abortion clinics in the state,” they write, “we suspect that abortion self-induction will increase as clinic-based care becomes more difficult to access.”

The plurality of the women in the survey said they were against abortion in general, but they understood why a woman would want to self-induce.


Women’s Opinions on Self-Induced Abortion

Texas Policy Evaluation Project

It’s not clear whether the self-induced abortions reported in this survey occurred as a direct result of the state’s abortion restrictions. Overall, abortions in the state declined by 13 percent since the law was enacted. The authors speculate that these women either traveled out of state, continued their pregnancies, or took their abortions into their own hands.

In a series of interviews with women who had attempted to induce their own abortions, also released by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project this week, the cost or hassle of traveling to a clinic emerged as just one of the reasons women gave for self-induction. Often, the logistical factors intermingled with poverty or feelings of shame.

One woman in the southern, coastal town of Corpus Christi said her local abortion clinic had closed, so she tried to self-induce at home using herbs. When that failed, she called a clinic 150 miles away, but she couldn’t get an appointment for a month because that clinic was so busy, she said.

For some women, taking Cytotec at home increased the anxiety surrounding the abortion process.

“There was also the fact that I’m doing it at home, we’re not—though we have all of the information as to how much bleeding is too much bleeding,” one 24-year-old said, “there’s always that slight uncertainty of like I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

Still, women might prefer that uncertainty to a long and expensive trek. West Texas’s Midland County, home to 151,000 people, is now 258 miles from the nearest abortion clinic, or about an nine-hour round-trip drive. The big question before the Supreme Court is whether distances like these pose an “undue burden” for women seeking an abortion. If women are inducing their own abortions because they’re not able to reach clinics, it adds fuel to the argument that the obstacles they face are too steep.

The Court is also being asked to determine whether the state’s abortion restrictions make clinics safer and protect women’s health, as the law’s supporters have claimed. Even if that was their intent, this study suggests thousands of abortion-seeking Texas women are being nudged away from healthcare settings entirely—be they safe or unsafe.

Who Took Care of Rosie the Riveter’s Kids?


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.

The scope of the program was enormous. Daycare centers were administered in every state except New Mexico. Between 1943 and 1946, spending on the program exceeded the equivalent of $1 billion today, and each year, about 3,000 childcare centers served roughly 130,000 children. By the end of the war, between 550,000 and 600,000 children are estimated to have received some care from Lanham Act programs. (Still, the demand for childcare was barely tapped. The Department of Labor estimated that each year, Lanham funds made it to only about 10 percent of the children in need.) By one historical account, the government had a hard time amassing a sufficient staff.

But the situation wasn’t exactly enviable for the Rosies. Particularly in the early part of the war, public figures sought to restore women to their purported rightful role of caring for their kids in the home. They often received similar messages from loved ones: A 1943 Gallup poll found that only 30 percent of husbands unconditionally supported their wives’ employment during the war. Once women returned from their long days at the factory, they would still be expected to do all the housework. And after getting paid about half the wage of their male colleagues, women were unceremoniously ejected from the workforce upon men’s return from the war. This is to say nothing of disparities among women themselves: Before white, middle-class women dutifully entered wartime munitions factories, many minority women had long been toiling outside of their homes, and poor women had no choice but to take up jobs.

All that said, the Lanham program is of landmark importance. Historically, the U.S. government has supported childcare primarily to either promote poor children’s early education or push poor women into the labor force. The Lanham program, though, broke ground as the first and, to date, only time in American history when parents could send their children to federally-subsidized childcare, regardless of income. And it was affordable: By late 1944, a mother could send a child of two to five years of age to childcare for 50 cents per day (about $7 in today’s money, adjusting for inflation). That included lunch, and snacks in the morning and afternoon.

Even though quality varied at the Lanham-funded centers and bureaucrats in charge of the program occasionally stepped on each others’ toes, the program, with such a broad base of beneficiaries, changed public sentiment about child-rearing. Until then, daycare had been considered a pitiful provision for poor mothers. Having served families across the socioeconomic spectrum, the centers familiarized the public with sending young children away from the home for part of the day. In fact, the journalism professor Rose Kundanis observes that it was during the Lanham programs’ tenure that the term “day care” was coined.

The programs stand out historically for another reason: They addressed the needs of both children and mothers. It wasn’t low-quality custodial care meant to serve as a holding pen for children while their parent worked, nor was it a program that sought to educate children without regard to mothers’ working schedules. As Sonya Michel chronicles in Children’s Interests/Mothers’ Rights, over the last two centuries, one barrier to the establishment of high-quality national childcare has been a battle between those advocating for the interests of children and those advocating for the rights of mothers.

The Lanham programs managed to reconcile these rival needs. The Arizona State University professor Chris M. Herbst’s recent study of the long-term effects of World War II-era childcare found a substantial increase in maternal employment, even five years after the end of the program, and “strong and persistent positive effects on well-being” for children.

But government support for childcare was meant to be temporary, and it was—even if women weren’t ready to surrender their jobs or their publicly provided daycare. In the early postwar years, working mothers, social-welfare groups, unions and civic organizations, early-childhood educators, and social workers all fought to retain the service. In response, President Truman requested additional funds to extend the program for a few more years, but efforts to extend federally-administered childcare on a long-term basis failed.

At the end of the war, the Lanham nursery schools closed, helping cast women out of the workforce to open up jobs for returning soldiers. The new national consensus dictated that children be cared for in the home, not dropped off at daycare. This belief stuck even as women’s employment resumed its upward climb after the war, though it had some prominent opponents. “The closing of childcare centers throughout the country certainly is bringing to light the fact that these centers were a real need,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in a newspaper column a month after the war ended. “Many thought they were purely a war emergency measure. A few of us had an inkling that perhaps they were a need which was constantly with us, but one that we had neglected to face in the past.” America never did get around to replacing the Lanham centers, though it got remarkably close in 1971, when Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, only to have it vetoed by President Nixon.

Even though it disappeared, the Lanham program demonstrates what happens when childcare is viewed as a collective responsibility.

More than a half-century later, 64 percent of women with children under the age of six are in the workforce, yet America’s work-family policies don’t even come close to those that existed near the end World War II, when only about 10 percent of mothers with children of those ages were working. Now, in 31 states and the District of Columbia, the average annual cost to send an infant to daycare can exceed a year’s tuition and fees at a public university. High childcare costs do not merely strain parents’ budgets; they often pressure women to drop out of the workforce, because in many cases the price of childcare would surpass earnings from a job. A lack of affordable childcare has contributed to the yawning long-term earnings gap between women and men.

The image of Rosie with a child strapped to her back is a reminder that, though there are good reasons to applaud the women who changed norms by working in munitions factories, advocates shouldn’t focus myopically on championing women’s employment. To do so would be to ignore the things—such as high-quality, affordable childcare—that make it feasible for mothers to participate in the labor force. Today, women are still expected to forget about or scale down their careers if no decent childcare options are available.

There are signs that a Lanham-like perspective is returning today. Slowly, conversation is turning away from the individualistic question of whether women can “have it all” (a query never directed at men) toward an acknowledgment that the absence of policies such as universal childcare have constrained women’s ability to hold down employment and have children—especially in a labor system that demands long working hours, dictates high childcare fees, and pays men and women unequally. What has long been treated as a private concern for mothers is now being recognized as a matter of national policy. Public intellectuals, Nobel economists, and Democratic presidential candidates have all declared their support for affordable, high-quality childcare.


It’s hardly encouraging that it took a world war for the U.S. government to establish the nation’s only universal childcare program. Still, if it, and other policies like it, seem unattainable today, consider what Rosie herself would say: We can do it.