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A Powerful Movement Puts Mothers at the Helm of Social Change

The Maternal Is Political, a new anthology, explores the transformation of and challenges facing the motherhood movement.
 
 
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The public image of motherhood has certainly gotten a political makeover in the past decade or so. What started with all that punditry about "soccer moms" and "security moms" as the voters du jour in the 2000 and 2004 elections got real with the March for Women's Lives, during which radical moms pushed strollers alongside the dykes on bikes. Then Code Pink emerged as an anti-war force led in large part by angry moms.

Today all the buzz is about "mommybloggers," an unfortunate name for an explosion in women writing online about not just diaper brands and nanny worries but public policy, military spending and a million other topics. A new anthology edited by one such "mommyblogger," Shari MacDonald Strong, is just out on Seal Press, appropriately titled The Maternal Is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change. It documents this fascinating shift -- from June Cleaver to Cindy Sheehan -- through essays by some of our time's greatest writers and politicians, including Anna Quindlen, Anne Lamott, Barbara Kingsolver, Nancy Pelosi and others.

AlterNet caught up with Shari MacDonald Strong between family vacations and laptop explosions to find out what this radical mom learned from putting together such an exquisitely written and deeply felt collection.

Courtney E. Martin: The mothers' movement is referred to frequently in these beautiful essays. For those who aren't familiar, can you define exactly what the mothers' movement really is?

Shari MacDonald Strong: I don't know anyone who can, actually. That's one of the biggest challenges facing the movement.

Does a mothers' movement exist? Absolutely. The phrase refers to the fact that over the last decade in the U.S. there has been an increasingly active and passionate effort on the part of mother-centric political groups, and on the part of mothers as individuals and as a broad political demographic, to increase awareness about the importance of mothers' work and to fight for legislation and representation that accurately reflects the needs, values and priorities of mothers in our society. This movement is impossible to define, however, because there is no single political leader, no self-proclaimed "Leader of the Moms," who is calling the shots; there is no one political organization that is dictating exactly what the needs, values and priorities must be for mothers in our society.

As movements go, the mothers' movement is a complex one -- one that is bringing about vital change on many different fronts at once. It's not as targeted as, say, the suffrage or civil rights movements. Countless moms are fighting together to bring about change in such areas as paid sick leave, health care coverage for all children, paid family leave -- something provided by every developed nation in the world except the U.S. -- the provision of quality childcare, equal pay for equal work particularly as it relates to mothers.

At the same time, many other mothers view different issues as being just as important as, or even more important than, these. The mothers' movement assumes that mothers are intelligent and passionate and discerning enough to decide for themselves what is for them the top priority and what they are willing -- especially amid the unending demands for clean laundry, hot meals, etc. -- to expend the energy, and put in the time, to fight for.

CEM: In the introduction you write, "Mothers carry a heavy enough burden without being told we need to do more in the political realm." It reminded me of the Marxist idea that the proletariat -- the working class -- was somehow going to have the energy to rise up and start a revolution, when really, they were totally exhausted after a long day's work. Is the mothers' movement one more example of women taking on too much of the burden?

SMS: Absolutely, it is. And at the same time, who else is going to do it? We've been waiting a long time, for example, for our government to "get" -- and to do something about -- the fact that women still don't get paid equally for the same work as men. Mothers make even fewer pennies on the dollar than single women do, and for the same work -- and single moms make the least of all. Who's going to fight the battle to change this picture, if not moms? Who else is going to notice the problem? It goes back to that old Women's Studies 101 issue of power: It's not just that people with power don't want to give it up; they're often quite clueless about what life is like for those with less.

Putting all this work on mothers' shoulders is a burden. It would be much more fair if far more non-mothers joined us in the fight. To be fair, many non-mothers have, and hopefully, many more will. But until then, and even after that, as we moms say to one another time and time again: We do what we have to do, because it has to be done.

CEM: Another theme that I found throughout The Maternal is Political is the notion of self-respect. Marrit Ingman writes, "We need not apologize for our efforts to recover; when we struggle with the beast, we send our children messages of self-respect -- that we are people, and people matter." So often mothers are entirely focused on the welfare of others, neglecting themselves in the process. How is the mothers' movement encouraging women to value self-care?

SMS: First, at the bedrock of self-care are the issues of being seen and heard. These are two of the most basic needs, for any of us. And, of course, many of the political issues mothers fight for fall under the category of "self-care." Roughly half of all employees of private companies don't get any paid sick days; that number rises to 80 percent for workers in the service industry. How do you practice "self-care" when you're a mother with no paid sick days, and one or more children who inevitably, and on a regular basis -- surprise! -- get sick. Do you save up your sick days for yourself, save your sick days for your children's illnesses or send your children to school while sick so you don't risk losing your job? Obviously, no one should have to make choices like this, but mothers do make hard choices like these, every day. Some choices relate to sickness, some to child care, some to breast-feeding -- the list is endless. This lack of support leaves little room in mothers' lives for self-care. This is a significant piece of what we're fighting to change.

CEM: Tracy Thompson writes, "Becoming a mother made it clear to me that I had become a member of a boundary-free global statehood of women united by a profound common interest: the welfare of the next generation." Where are fathers in all of this? Why is it that mothers seem to feel this call, this sisterhood, but men are absent from the conversation in much of these pages?

SMS: I put this book together because I was longing to hear other mothers' voices speaking about motherhood and politics. I think that women and mothers have largely -- with a few exceptions, like attention paid to "soccer moms" or so-called "security moms" in recent elections -- been either ignored or underestimated in the political realm, and this felt like the most overlooked group of voices. But it's not the only overlooked group. You're right: Although men's voices have dominated politics for a long time, fatherhood rarely enters the political discussion. It dumbfounds me that politicians of both genders, who are also parents, don't speak more overtly about their politics as viewed through the lens of parenthood.

As much as I love this volume of stories about politics, written by mothers, I think a compilation of stories about politics, written by fathers from a father's perspective and not simply from a man's perspective, is just as needed and could be just as powerful and world-altering.

CEM: I was so moved by Violeta Garcia-Mendoza's essay about the personal and the political with regard to global adoption. She writes, "Adoptive motherhood bears the secret that the lines we erect to partition ourselves off from others, to protect ourselves against the heaviness of the human experience, are arbitrary." Do you see that maternal as inherently political, in part, because it provides us with an undeniable experience of our interconnection?

SMS: Absolutely. None of us lives in true isolation, much less parents in isolation. The struggles that you face, that I face, other families also face. No one is powerful enough -- or smart enough, and connected enough, etc. -- to single-handedly solve every problem that arises. Child care, health care, a sinking economy, national security -- if one of us could "fix" the problems, that person presumably would do so. But of course, it doesn't work that way. We need one another.

As a parent, I'm constantly interacting with people who are different from me, who cause me to step outside of my comfort zone. Some of these people, I enjoy immensely; others grate on my last nerve. In these cases, I suck it up and find a way to work with that teacher or that other parent, because that's what my child needs. That's what mothers do. It isn't about seizing an idea about how things should go and then sticking to it; it's about engaging with others, and questioning, and engaging again, and then re-engaging some more, and together doing whatever needs to be done to facilitate our children's well-being.

CEM: Most of the essays in the anthology are written from a left-leaning political point of view. Do you see room for conservative mothers in the mothers' movement, or is it limited to women who are pro-choice, Obama lovin', and likely to be driving hybrid cars? What about economic diversity -- do you see many women of low-income backgrounds getting involved in this burgeoning movement?

SMS: The book leans left, in large part because I do -- but the mothers' movement club isn't exclusive, and membership isn't limited. I do see the mothers' movement as being very progressive-driven, but it would be a mistake to think that only self-defined "liberal" moms are involved. Finding common ground often starts with thinking for ourselves and voting our consciences, instead of our parties.

As for lower-income mothers, there are many lower-income mothers who are doing some of the most vital work in the movement. But it's also unrealistic to expect that they can carry a large portion of the burden. Many are working multiple jobs, getting even less sleep than the rest of us other mothers, barely hanging on by a thread. Activism is both a basic, primary need and a luxury that not all of us can afford. The wisdom and insight and passion and hard work of lower-income mothers is something the mothers' movement needs, but these mothers' need for the passion and hard work and connections and string-pulling of those of us who have the often meager, but still-present energy to give it may be even greater.

CEM: How do you see mothers influencing the 2008 election?

SMS: I wonder sometimes which group(s) of mothers the candidates will identify and target this election season. "Soccer moms" and "security moms" have been courted in the past. The political pitches these mom-groups field are discouraging, precisely because they're so obviously manipulative. I can understand why a politician would want to identify a group s/he sees as being sympathetic to her or his political positions. But I get frustrated when I see the media getting on the sound-bite roller coaster. I don't want to see a bunch of news stories about "moms who care about national security" advertised this year. After all, what mom doesn't care about her kids being safe? Such angles are disingenuous, and they break us down into groups whose lines are arbitrary or don't even exist.

The reality is, the candidates are going to have to seriously address issues that moms care about, and the smart candidate will do so proactively and overtly, directing his comments to all mothers. Considering how tight the last couple of presidential races have been, I realize that, as a group, mothers could easily decide the 2008 election. The bigger question right now is, will the candidates take us as seriously as we deserve to be taken, address our concerns and give us solid, family-related reasons to get up and do it?

Courtney E. Martin is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body . You can read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.