Catherine Hall discusses collective childcare



Catherine Hall describes how women began to find their own solutions to the problems of balancing childcare responsibilities with work. She and other parents cared for their children communally and campaigned for free 24-hour childcare for everyone in Birmingham during the 1970s.

What’s the childcare situation like today?

Those who can afford to send their children to a nursery or childminder, or employ a nanny if they want to return to paid employment while their children are young. But these options can be very expensive: in 2011 the average gross salary of a nanny was £34,000 in London; childminders cost in the region of £65–70 per day; a full-time place at nursery could cost in excess of £350 per week. Currently all three- and four-year-old children are entitled to up to 15 hours of free nursery education for 38 weeks of the year. There are very few state-funded, full-time nursery places available for babies and young children. Full-time nursery places often cost as much as a full-time salary so many parents – in practice usually mothers – decide it makes economic sense to stay at home with their children until they reach school age. This means many women are out of the job market for up to five years, which has a significant impact on their career progression, earning potential, skills and pensions.

Childcare and low-paid work

Most childcare workers are not well paid, and care work like childminding is often outsourced to women from minority and migrant groups who are frequently right at the bottom of the wage scale. Women make up over half of the migrants in Europe and, according to the Council of Europe, 2011, tend to find work in traditional women’s roles – domestic work, childminding, health care, hotels and catering, garment manufacturing, piece work – where they work long hours for low pay and may be severely exploited since many of them have an irregular immigration status. Domestic work is particularly problematic as women are isolated and sometimes abused, with few benefits and little recourse to justice.

Sarah Farris is a feminist theorist who has researched the topic of women and domestic labour. She has coined the term ‘femonationalism’ to describe the ironic phenomenon whereby the middle-class white women's enhanced opportunities out of the home have only been made possible through employing lowly paid working-class and, increasingly, migrant women.

Is it right that some women are forced to choose between work and motherhood?

What happens when, as a woman, your freedom to return to work comes at the expense of another woman’s human rights?

Do you think that there should be free childcare for all and if so, how should it be paid for?



Four of us went to the first women’s meeting at Ruskin: Val, myself and I can’t remember who the other two were, which I ought to know. And obviously there were the four demands which then gave kind of shape to what we thought we were doing. But I think that childcare was always at the top of the list because that’s where we were. We weren’t at that point working women in full employment. We’d had educational opportunities. So the thing that hit home most with us was about the importance of childcare provision. Of course it’s a ridiculous demand, twenty four hour childcare, but we certainly did believe in the importance of proper provision of childcare and spent a lot of time talking about that and working on that, and setting up first the – what we called the baby playgroups and then a playgroup, which became the Women’s Liberation Playgroup, which survived for many, many, many years and moved from one premises to another. And they just recently had a memorial for it. They put down paving stones [laughs] commemorating the Birmingham Women’s Liberation Playgroup, and they sell commemoration mugs. So generations of children went through that playgroup.

And with the communal childcare, could you say a bit more about how that was arrange and was there a rota for people looking after x number of children - how did you manage to sort of people that?

It was all very organised, you know, a regular rota. I think we probably did it three days a week and we did it for a long morning including lunch so that they had their lunch and we had our lunch. And then we would have meetings to talk about it and talk about any problems that arose. So it was a very sociable activity. We all became very close friends. All the men, ‘cos the men would pick up the children and, you know, sometimes cook for them and so on and so forth, so it was a, we all lived very close by. It was a real neighbourhood activity.

We did have a paid worker and then the rest was organised on a voluntary basis but with a very regular rota and with a lot of men involved in that. And by that time there were men’s groups in Birmingham. This must have been by the late ‘70s, I guess. And quite a number of men who were involved on a regular basis, some whose children were there and some who were committed to thinking that you should do work with children and the whole communal principle. There were communes, various communes, set up kind of around this group of people.

What about the men’s groups, they were helping with childcare?

Some of them would. They were meeting, talking about masculinity, sexuality, etc. Certainly two or three of them regularly helped at the playgroup as a matter of political commitment that they should do that. We created materials for the playgroup, we wrote stories, we created games. We tried to do things that were encouraging them not to be trapped into masculine and feminine stereotypes. Some of them were pretty misconceived really. I mean, we tried rewriting fairytales and having women heroines, girl heroines and so on. And some of it we managed quite well and some of it was a bit clunky.

Catherine Hall discusses collective childcare
16 April 2012
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Sisterhood and After: The Women's Liberation Oral History Project
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