Wednesday’s address to the nation began rolling out President Joe Biden’s plan for American families. The proposal promises to expand tax credits for families, provide funding for preschool education, and strengthen child care and paid time off. The president hopes to address significant gaps in the country’s social safety net. American women – especially women of color – have long been painfully aware of the financial and social costs of childcare, maternity leave, choosing to stay home, and the thankless chores of unpaid domestic work. The coronavirus pandemic has only exposed and exacerbated long-existing tensions.
The United States has never really embarked on a large-scale program to tackle these problems. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t historical examples that might help us assess Biden’s proposal. In the early 1950s, East and West Germany initiated programs to try to help women and families in crisis deal with many of the issues that Biden’s proposal targets. to solve. The lesson: One-off reforms and limited funding could dash any hope that America’s plan for families will actually improve these age-old problems.
On May 8, 1945, the Allies formally defeated Nazi Germany. The four allies – the Soviet Union, the United States, Great Britain and France – quickly occupied the devastated lands.
Almost immediately the Allies became obsessed with the “family crisis”. During the war, German women had taken on the “double burden” of full-time employment and domestic work while their husbands and partners left to fight. Towards the end of the war and in the immediate post-war period, many of these women had to uproot their families as they fled Allied bombardments or the approaching Soviet Red Army, seeking refuge elsewhere.
Many men have never returned home, leaving their working widows with little relief unless they remarry or enter non-traditional family structures, such as living with relatives. For those who returned home, domestic violence, verbal abuse and marital disagreement were not uncommon, leading to a skyrocketing divorce rate. For many women affected by these upheavals, there seemed to be no end in sight.
A decade later, the political situation in Germany had changed considerably. The outbreak of the Cold War led to the semi-permanent division of the country into the capitalist and liberal democratic Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany), allied with the United States and the Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany), supported by the Soviet Union.
However, the situation is changing much less quickly on the ground for women and their families. Even when the immediate housing and food crises were resolved, wartime demographic imbalances, the gendered division of labor, and the ‘double burden’ of women remained topics of public discussion in Germany. East and West. Many policymakers and observers have argued that without state intervention to redress gender roles, East German and West German society would remain in turmoil.
Both states have therefore pursued piecemeal family policies and new laws designed to help women and families in crisis in the short term, while strengthening traditional gender roles and encouraging reproduction in the name of long-term stability.
In 1950, East Germany passed the Maternity and Child Protection and Equal Rights of Women Act, which guaranteed women grants for every birth (with additional one-time payments for more. of two children), allocating 200,000 additional places in nurseries. and day care centers (and earmarked 40,000,000 Deutsche Mark in funding specifically for these businesses) and offered better maternity care, longer paid maternity leave and other protections in the workplace. Although ambitious and a signal of ideological commitment to the emancipation of women, the East German government has not followed through on the promise of the law.
The one-party Communist government had the political power to pass the legislation but was unwilling to devote much money to these enterprises. In the early 1950s, the government remained focused on achieving the goals set out in its five-year plans, namely heavy industrial production, rather than the production of material goods and social services. The government further reduced rationing and social allowances for single mothers, raising the overall cost of living and forcing single women – many of whom were mothers – to work as wage earners. This failure left East German women to shoulder the burden of full-time employment and child rearing.
Not much has changed in the past two decades. The East German government took small steps in the late 1950s, such as increasing the production of consumer goods, but many women were still frustrated by the lack of major reform and the continued ‘double burden’. .
In the 1970s, a new East German administration finally turned its tide, devoting more money and attention to these issues. He embarked on new policies, including up to one year of paid maternity leave and state-subsidized childcare services – and most importantly, fully implemented and better funded these programs. These changes contributed to an extremely high female employment rate in 1990, when German reunification took place, forcing East Germany to fall back – and its gender policies – into the West German system.
In the West, similar debates had taken place. In the early 1950s, West German women’s organizations lobbied the Christian Democratic Union-led government and parliament (Bundestag) to change family law and related policies. In 1952, West Germany adopted its own law for the protection of mothers.
Like its East German counterpart, this law expanded workplace protections for pregnant women, allowing them paid maternity leave before and after childbirth, prohibiting heavy lifting and hazardous work, and limiting Night and Sunday shifts. But although the law is supposed to protect pregnant workers from losing their jobs, employers have subsequently found ways to circumvent these provisions. When the center-left Social Democrats attempted to push through broader changes, they encountered resistance from the current Christian Democrats. In the end, the Social Democrats compromised on key measures.
It is therefore essential that West German law does not contain provisions relating to childcare or crèches.
Although the rapid economic growth attributed to the adoption of social market economic policies in the 1950s ensured West German prosperity and abundant funding, this family-friendly legislation was the victim of compromise and attempts at bipartisanship which ultimately limited its provisions and funding. For West German women, therefore, the law has done little to ensure that hiring practices (especially for pregnant or married women) remain fair or that working women receive state aid for the job. child care.
This failure and related policies had long-term consequences. In 1990, only around 56% of West German women worked full time. The West German state has long encouraged married mothers to quit full-time jobs and stay at home by offering family allowances to supplement men’s wages. In addition, other existing barriers, such as the half-day school system, combined with the scarcity of publicly funded child care, have made it difficult for mothers to work full time without their children. are not guaranteed. These failures kept women’s labor force participation low compared to their East German counterparts and made life much more difficult for mothers who had to work.
Even as East and West Germans engaged in Cold War competition, aimed at demonstrating the superior ability of each system to deliver a quality of life, both underfunded and compromised on proposals to help women and families struggling with childcare challenges. Although both developed policies that, if fully realized, could have solved the family’s problems, they each had critical shortcomings that dashed those hopes.
This experience exposes the problems associated with piecemeal reforms and limited funding to solve the types of problems the American Families Plan aims to address. It is only with adequate funding that child care programs can alleviate some of the burden on working women. And the limited reach of West German programs demonstrates that while political compromise has its advantages, it can create programs with gaps and weaknesses that leave women with the same double burden that weighs them down in the States today. United.
Alexandria N. Ruble is Assistant Professor of European History at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. This piece was written for the Washington Post.