Long Live Our Foreprogs!

Pleasant Progressive1Sometimes it’s hard to be pleasant in progressivism. There are lots of disappointments. Failures, even. The other side is pretty dumb, and seemingly always up to something mischievous. Our knight in shining armor sure gives a good speech, but as all leaders do, Obama disappoints on some pretty important progressive ideals. It’s enough to make one grumpy, or at least reminisce about the good old days of activism. In honor of my rumblings about the current state of political affairs, I’m heading back to the 1970’s!

Remember when the Equal Rights Amendment passed the Senate 84-8? Remember when we passed Title IX protections? Won Roe v. Wade? Criminalized marital rape (well, sort of)? Nowadays, we’re lucky if we can get a public official to admit gender discrimination happens. And gods forbid we expect our progressive colleagues to support a woman’s ability to make a private decision about a legal medical procedure. Are our glory days behind us?

This past weekend, I caught MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes asking Gloria Steinem this very question. Click to 7ish minutes to watch this conversation:

In some ways, progress is undeniable. But in other ways, there’s a high water mark reached in the 1970’s that feels very distant from our current politics. The Equal Rights Amendment coming 3 states away from being ratified in the Constitution. I found out through the documentary and doing research that there was a law [sic] passed to subsidize childcare for people under the Nixon Administration that got out of both houses and was vetoed by Richard Nixon. That seems like a distant—like some other lost planet. I’m curious how you view our progress…

Hayes’ has a point. It does feel distant, but more like we’re on the lost planet, fighting losing battles on issues that used to be bipartisan and noncontroversial. And perhaps more striking is how dang high our foremothers—well, there were lots of dudes there, so let’s call them foreprogressives or foreprogs—aimed compared to the baseline of what we’re even allowing ourselves to hope for these days. Forget reauthorizing VAWA, our foreprogs were fighting for a constitutional amendment! They were pushing for universal childcare!

Maybe they weren’t always successful, but those 70’s progressives knew how to dream big. After doing some more digging into the universal childcare bill Hayes mentioned, I think it’s worth taking a moment or two to reflect on this awesomeness.

Right, so NOW coins the slogan “Every Mother Is a Working Mother” in the late 1960s, and sets out to push for federal support for maternity leave and day care centers—in a nutshell so that women who become parents have access to the work force, economic security, etc. These folks start lobbying Members of Congress. In 1971, Congresswomen Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) and Bella Abzug (D-NY)—two of the thirteen women in the House (out of 435)—introduced the Comprehensive Child Care Act. If you haven’t seen Chisholm’s official portrait, it’s worth your time. I feel the same way about Abzug’s diary of her first year in Congress (none other than 1971).

That same year, Senators Walter Mondale (D-MN) and Jacob Javits (R-NY) introduce this same bill on the Senate side, where they enjoy the collegiality of but two women Senators (out of 100—and for all you history buffs, ‘71 was the year the Senate Page program started accepting girls to participate). Thank goodness these good folks were able to sell their colleagues on the idea that child care has the potential to be a pre-pre-kindergarten developmental opportunity for kids—especially for low-income and single women who need child care access to work to support their families.

The bill they all introduced, the Comprehensive Child Care Act (CCA) declared that comprehensive child development programs should be available as a matter of right to all children regardless of economic, social, and family background. It created a $2 billion (that’s $11 billion in today’s dollars) program of subsidized and sliding scale child care for all American families.

The CCA passed as part of the Economic Opportunity Amendments of 1971. And then, as we all know because America certainly does not have anything nearing universal childcare today, Nixon vetoed the bill. He said he was against the “Sovietization of American children,” along with a lot of dumb stuff about financially supporting child development being a commitment to “the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against [sic] the family-centered approach.” Nixon clearly did not believe it takes a village.

I’ll admit it would be helpful to know more about this effort before making any grandiose statements. But even with just this preliminary research, I think the lesson to take from our forgotten bit of progressive history is to aim high and make the fight about our ideals.

Look, yesterday the Senate passed a reauthorization of VAWA on a 78-22 vote. All 22 no’s were Republican men. And we’re expected to celebrate it as a big deal, despite the fact that the reauthorization is now past due because House GOPers blocked the bill last Congress—not to mention that it includes smaller, “streamlined” sums of money to fight violence rather than anything that might, I don’t know, proactively support women and families. I’m not saying VAWA isn’t extremely important in its own right, only that our foreprogs were fighting for pretty impressive ideals and even gained state approval for those beliefs—and we’re asked to clap at some money that might protect women from being assaulted.

I may be oversimplifying for gusto, but hopefully it’s a nice reminder as we armor up for the path Obama laid out last night: we’re about to tackle comprehensive immigration reform, gun control, reforming education, ending some wars, stabilizing the economy, and all of those nightmarish federal debt/government spending/sequester conversations here in Washington. Not one of the items on our to-do list doesn’t feel overwhelming. So let’s keep our foreprogs’ incredible work in our collective consciousness. They aimed high, and so must we.

With Love,
The Pleasant Progressive

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