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'The difficulties that beset the paths of working mothers'

Arriving at nursery school, October 1939, courtesy National Library of Australia ( Arriving at nursery school, October 1939, courtesy National Library of Australia (
It was International Women's Day on Sunday 8 March, so this week I thought we could reflect on how women have worked together to improve their lives in Sydney.

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The burden or job of childcare often falls to women. Today working women have a variety of options for childcare: aside from immediate family, there are family day care centres, childcare centres and kindergartens. But for much of the 19th century, women in Sydney were entirely reliant upon family and neighbours, and even their older children, to care for their babies and toddlers while they earned a crust. Only the wealthy few could afford a nanny or domestic servant. It wasn't until 1895 that feminist Maybanke Anderson worked with other female reformers to found the Kindergarten Union. The first Free Kindergarten was set up in Sydney to assist working mothers in Woolloomooloo. In 1903 however, the Kindergarten Union decided to exclude children under the age of three, on the basis that infants required nurses, rather than teachers. This left many poor working mothers in a pickle. Two years later another group of middle-class women, all with business connections and feminist reformist beliefs, got together to found the Sydney Day Nursery Association.  They believed a creche was needed to assist working women. It was to be '…no cold, remote charity, but an institution started by fellow women, who fully realise the difficulties that beset the paths of working mothers.'
A Day with the Babies, Sydney Mail June 20 1906 p1620 via Trove A Day with the Babies, Sydney Mail June 20 1906 p1620 via Trove
Like its predecessor the Free Kindergarten, the first Day Nursery for babies and infants was located in a two storey terrace in Woolloomooloo, one of Sydney's poor working neighbourhoods. For threepence a day, children were bathed, fed, clothed and cared for, from 7.00am to 6.30pm. A matron, and visiting doctors and dentists, monitored the children's health. Nutritionally balanced meals and fresh milk were provided. Staff supported mothers at the day nursery and made home visits. We should see this moment in Sydney's history as a radical intervention, by women, for women - even if the founding members were well-off conservative women. For most of its history, the association has also been controlled and managed by women: fundraising, leasing premises, hiring staff, advocating for children's health and education. Many more Day Nurseries were opened in the inner city and in suburbs with large female working populations who needed quality education and care of their children for the full working week. There were creches established in Darlington, Surry Hills and Paddington over the following decades. By the 1930s, the association had also established education facilities for toddlers, and it is still going strong today. It is now known as SDN Children's Services. You can read more about Maybanke Anderson in Jan Robert's entry on the Dictionary here, and more about the history of the Sydney Day Nursery Association in the entry by Lindsay Read, Michelle Goodman and Susan Mills here. Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa, for ten years of unstinting support of the Dictionary!  You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio Listen to Lisa & Alex here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15-8:20 am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.           
Blog 2SER Breakfast Alex James childcare children day care education feminism International Women's Day IWD 2020 Kindergarten Union KU Children's Services labour Lisa Murray preschool SDN Sydney Day Nursery sydney history welfare women work