ECE diamonds

Cathy Lythe – as long as you did nothing for childcare, you could keep women in their place 

Life member 1987
President 1981-1985

It was the struggle to arrange childcare for her daughters in the early 1970s that saw Cathy Lythe step into the fray for early childhood care and education. She soon realised that anti-childcare attitudes were strongly linked to keeping women in their place.

Cathy was a career-minded senior public servant but the climate for working mothers was not supportive. The lack of childcare options meant juggling arrangements for her two daughters. 

When a friend set up a parent cooperative childcare centre, Cathy joined the committee, constantly struggling to keep it operational. She also joined the committee setting up the Wellington Community Child Care Association (WCCCA) along with two other new parent co-operatives, and committees supporting the welfare of children and women. 

“We were up against something bigger than just childcare. Childcare was just a manifestation of it. As long as you did nothing for childcare you could keep women in their place. The situation of women was not going to change or be cherished while this whole attitude to people who used childcare remained that of a ‘baby dumper’.

“Involvement in childcare was not desirable… And especially because they tagged the label ‘feminist’ onto it. I used to get all sorts of names like ‘RED FED’ at work…. I was seeing the wider issue in that all our futures were tied up in it.”

Cathy’s involvement with the Association began with the 1977 conference in Wellington, where she was nominated to the executive committee. The Association was soon to score its first major ongoing government funding, boosting its training programme and enabling staff to be employed.

Cathy was President from 1981 to 1985: In a retiring missive, she reflected on the expansion of a small training scheme to a fully-fledged professional programme.

“Our founding members identified the need for specialised training in childcare… now nearing the end of its second decade the training programme has undergone a complete metamorphosis… The truth of the maxim that Qualifications mean status and status means recognition is amply demonstrated by the fact that Government funding for childcare services is closely tied to the successful completion of a course of training.”

From starting on a parent committee at Adelaide Child Care Centre to becoming President of the Association, Cathy witnessed huge changes across the landscape of early childhood education. She once said that organisation’s later advocacy for 100% trained teachers was its most significant manifesto - which remains ongoing.

This article is an abridged version from Te Rito Maioha’s book on its life members and their work. You can read the full story of Cathy and those of other ECE champions:

Life Stories on the Frontline: Growing a childcare movement in Aotearoa
Ngā kohinga kōrero a te aumangea: Kia mana te ara kōhungahunga ki Aotearoa