“The Direct, Human Element in a Democratic Environment”: The History of UNOW

Wednesday, Oct 18, 2017

Feminists from the local chapter of the National Organization for Women (now) founded the University now Day Nursery (UNOW) in 1970. now itself was founded in 1966 by activists, including the legendary civil rights worker Pauli Murray, who saw a need for an “NAACP of women’s rights.” The now charter called for “concrete action” to challenge “the conditions that now prevent women from enjoying the equality and opportunity and freedom of choice which is their right, as individual Americans, and as human beings.” The charter pointed particularly to how the responsibility of child care in society remained borne disproportionately by individual mothers caring for their own children. NOW argued that this prevented women from working outside the home on equal terms with men and thus from enjoying “true equality” in society.

The central New Jersey chapter of now held its first meeting in 1969. In the chapter’s early meetings, founding members including Dorothy Losowski, Francesca Benson (a.k.a. Francesca Stonaker), and Elizabeth Raintree discussed what sort of “concrete action” they could take as now feminists in Princeton. They quickly decided on all-day, pedagogically inspiring, and affordable child care as a precondition to women’s liberation. As renowned historian Christine Stansell (who was among the first women to enroll at Princeton University in ’69, and whose children later attended UNOW) has written, the now feminists “insisted that full-time domesticity turned women into life-long dependents and stranded both sexes in an invidious half-equality.” It was in building community programs like UNOW that they sought to transform the entire society.

By September 1970—“after a heroic summer of hard work and persistence,” as one of UNOW’s founders put it—the local now feminists had the program up and running, though with no funds, no promise of financial backing, and even, the same founder explained, no premises, “until the last moment, when Princeton University came through with the offer of four large classrooms and a teachers’ lounge” at 171 Broadmead, the red brick building that housed the venerable cooperative morning program University League Nursery School. From its first day, UNOW offered “an all-day program starting at 8 and continuing until 6,” with an original tuition in 1970 of $28 per week and a teacher-student ratio of 1:7. UNOW also immediately established itself as an independent program, though its founders chose a name that would provide a reminder for the future that Princeton University had given the program a home and that now had given the program a mission.

Day by day in its first years, UNOW strived toward making its mission an everyday reality, with its idealistic and experimental pedagogy, the hard work of its teachers, director, and board, and the belief that UNOW could, in its own local but not little way, play a part in building a free and equal society. Though the initial impetus to found the school had been to liberate mothers to pursue work outside the home, the first UNOW teachers quickly applied their feminist precepts to the care and education of UNOW’s first children, crafting a pedagogy that made UNOW a place that taught freedom. Such teaching fit the moment: UNOW began caring for children at a revolutionary moment in the history of community education, when civil rights movement freedom schools and the “pedagogy of liberation” expounded by educational philosophers like Paulo Freire inspired teachers around the world to rethink even the root purposes of a school, from early child care to adult education.

The untraditional pedagogy of UNOW’s program was, however, disconcerting to some of the school’s first parents. As Elisabeth Hagen, one of UNOW’s founders and first board members, explained, some parents “feel insecure at the youth of the teachers, at their informality and lack of ‘talking down’ to children, at their willingness to allow conflict and stress in children’s day-to-day encounters rather than to intervene immediately in any kind of difficulty, in the name of protection.” From the beginning, UNOW teachers introduced themselves to students by their first names. This began a UNOW tradition that teachers proudly keep alive today. That the teachers extended their egalitarian beliefs to even the children themselves was a well-thought-out pedagogical choice, and it worked well enough that children learned to make this respect mutual, and also to treat each other on equal terms of trust and respect—“It is a revelation,” Elisabeth explained, “to hear one four year old say to another over a disputed toy, ‘Let’s negotiate!’”

Elisabeth explained that this pedagogy “arose almost spontaneously from the group of young teachers who drew their ideas from a common habit of communication and tolerance.” As UNOW’s children picked up their teachers’ habits, their parents noticed. One early board member explained that before she moved to Princeton her child “went to a dear little group in Syracuse run by a motherly old Granny who made quite sure that all the children were absolutely safe in every way.” To which Elisabeth replied, “From the motherly old Granny in Syracuse to youthful feminists in blue jeans is a far cry and a major shift in philosophical approach.” The shift stuck: in 1980, Director Heidi Evans explained that teachers still made it a pedagogical point to not do too much for students: “We don’t always put on their coats for them. It’s a mistake to do too much for kids. Give them, instead, a sense of ‘practice.’” For a school founded to further women’s liberation, it was only logical that children’s freedom became an ideal to strive for in practice, day after day. As an early board member drily noted, “Playground surveillance has... been controversial.” Decades later, UNOW’s playground remains a profoundly free space, the hours spent there very much “free time.”

The ideal of freedom that most animated early UNOW teaching, and the one that has remained most central to the school’s identity, is UNOW’s enduring aim to free children from the constraints of confining gender stereotypes. Teachers at one meeting early on complained about Mother Goose on classroom shelves—they pointed out that nursery rhymes like “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater” taught lessons of patriarchal hierarchy and domestic feminine unfreedom of the very sort that the school had been founded to abolish. A consensus was worked out in which the school kept the book, and teachers read its rhymes interpretively and inventively. This had the wonderful effect in practice of making nursery rhyme time come alive with fun and creativity. It was in confronting such dilemmas and working together to create consensus that UNOW developed its distinctive, enduring customs.

The underlying sense of purpose established at UNOW’s founding has remained part of the school’s everyday being in large part because of dedicated teachers who have worked to maintain UNOW’s special idealism. Betty Harris, who taught at the school for more forty years, embodied much of what has made UNOW a special place. Reflecting on UNOW’s history in 2014, Betty insisted that “the direct, human element in a democratic environment is critical to our essence. It is a family environment where mutual respect is valued.” Like its sense of community, UNOW’s sense of family is profound, inclusive, and a lesson for all who found a place at 171 Broadmead over the course of 47 years. In the fall of 2017, UNOW moved into its new home, built by the university, next door at 185 Broadmead. UNOW remains a place marked by its beautiful, uncommon history, and it remains committed to serving as a place of freedom for children, a source of women’s liberation and welfare for all working families, a workplace that recognizes the value for all of an empowered teaching staff, and an example of how small places can shape history for a long time.