The first major family policies, in the early 20th century, were aimed at protecting mothers — certain ones, at least. States offered mothers’ pensions, mostly for white women whose husbands had succumbed to one of the four Ds — death, disability, drunkenness or divorce. Black and Hispanic women were excluded. The first federal welfare benefits in the United States came in 1935, and included Aid to Dependent Children, “to enable the mother to stay at home and devote herself to housekeeping and the care of her children,” according to Social Security documents from the time.
Mostly, though, American policy has followed the approach of treating male and female caregivers the same — if only by not offering much support for either.
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“In Europe, being a feminist meant talking about women’s caregiving responsibilities, and in the United States, we didn’t want to talk about those,” Professor Waldfogel said. “We went way farther than other countries in terms of equal rights, but less far with things like paid leave.”
During the world wars, many European countries had family policies like paid maternity leave and public child care to support the women who were doing men’s former jobs while they were deployed. These countries made them permanent in part to try to increase fertility after the losses sustained in the wars.
American women were involved in the international Maternity Protection Convention in 1919, which called for 12 weeks of paid leave for birth mothers, but while other countries followed it, the United States did not. And though the U.S. offered public child care during World War II, it ended after the war.
By the time the United States began offering unpaid leave for some workers, in 1993, and California became the first state to enact a law to pay for it, in 2002, gender roles had changed in major ways. Most mothers were already working for pay, and men were more involved with family. So the policies included both men and women, as well as caregiving for family illnesses, from the start.
Making policies gender neutral, though, doesn’t necessarily mean both men and women will use them. The backlash to Mr. Buttigieg’s leave shows how deep the resistance can be: “Paternity leave, they call it, trying to figure out how to breastfeed,” Tucker Carlson said on his Fox News show.