ZOE BAIRD has done inadvertently what no other public figure has been able to accomplish by intent. To her consternation, she made child care a front-page story.
In just a week, by being a player in the difficult, often agonizing procedure of finding care-givers for a child, Ms. Baird became - instead of attorney general - a famous and fallible parent whom millions of other American parents could identify with and criticize.
Mothers and fathers who may not know a tort from a box of pablum have spoken up as expert and angry witnesses on the dilemmas of improvising care for young children in the only industrialized country that fails to provide a support system as a matter of policy.
What the Baird case has illuminated to the flash point of public indignation is an indefensible paradox: Child care in America is so costly that only the well-to-do can afford the best; at the same time, the care-givers entrusted with the extraordinary responsibility of lovingly and imaginatively watching over other people's children are paid the wages of unskilled labor - even by the well-to-do.
Full-time workers in child-care centers average only $11,500 a year, according to a 1990 study. Care-givers who work in their own homes as family day care providers earn about $10,000. Is it any wonder that turnover rates average 39 percent a year at for-profit child-care centers and that finding quality care remains a major problem for parents everywhere? Until this essential activity gets the respect - and pay - it deserves, quality and availability are unlikely to improve.
Zoe Baird did not ask to be the lightning rod for the issue of child care any more than Anita Hill, before the same Senate Judiciary Committee, chose to be the lightning rod for the issue of sexual harassment.
The two cases are quite different in terms of innocence and culpability. But if in the next year Baird's experience brings to the issue of child care the thoughtful attention that Ms. Hill's ordeal brought to the issue of sexual harassment, her experience will not have been in vain.