Luchina Fisher

Are Babies the New Hot Accessory?

The recent spate of books on motherhood, magazine covers with celebrity moms and popular television shows about housewives seems to be embracing motherhood, showing it to be hip.

This new image of motherhood, which appears aimed primarily at affluent moms, is characterized by chic maternity clothes, innovative and expensive baby products, such as the $700 Bugaboo stroller, the style-savvy web site, and "hip hotels with a kid-friendly vibe," as written about recently in The New York Times.

"When the beautiful people embrace parenting, it becomes sexy," mom Jana Platina-Phipps says, referring to actresses and magazine cover models Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow and Brooke Shields.

Moms even have the attention of television. Gone is Sex and the City about four single girlfriends in New York. This season's big hit is the dramatic series Desperate Housewives, while two different networks each have shows about wives who swap places and nannies who tame unruly children.

But as mainstream media put a new gloss on motherhood, moms and other observers point out that the underlying conditions of mothering in America have not undergone any substantial change. Real mothers are still worn out by broken sleep, worries about how to split their time between paying work and child-rearing and what to do about child care.

"We still have many policies that are counter to motherhood and need to be improved in order to make motherhood something that's manageable for women at all different income levels," says Avis Jones-DeWeever, a study director for the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington.

Jones-DeWeever points to the lack of maternity leave and flexible schedules for many working moms, including some Washington mothers featured in an upcoming report from the institute who have needed to rely on federally-subsidized child support (welfare) as a form of maternity leave.

Not a 'Liberation Moment'

"I don't feel like it's such a liberation moment," says Ariel Gore, who founded hipMama, a print zine and web site, as her senior project 10 years ago when she was a 23-year-old single mom struggling to finish college.

Back then, being a young single mom was "such an anti-hipster thing," Gore says. While her friends were going out after class, she was rushing home to relieve the babysitter. That is why, with her tongue in cheek, she named her zine hipMama, then took on serious issues such as child support, family leave, domestic violence and public education.

"When I see pictures of Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Roberts, I think that's chic and hip for them," says Amy Harte, 38, the mother of a 3-year-old boy and a 4-month-old girl, living in the suburbs outside New York City. "My personal experience is that it's not chic or fashionable. It's absolutely the best thing you can do, but it ain't pretty. There are some beautiful moments and a lot of hard stuff in between."

"I think this hipness is a creation of Madison Avenue," says Jones-DeWeever. "It's hip for affluent mothers."

But motherhood's image makeover also extends to less affluent moms, who can buy designer maternity clothes at the discount store Target. And it crosses racial lines as well. Black publications Jet and Ebony have recently featured articles about black celebrity moms and black mothers choosing to stay home.

'Is it All Just Marketing?'

"Has motherhood become hip or is it all just marketing?" wonders writer Amy Sohn, who addressed the subject recently in her Mating column for New York magazine.

"As women are having babies later, all these companies have realized that these people want to spend money on their kids," she says. "And these companies are there to cater to them."

According to the latest Census report, the average age of women who gave birth for the first time was 25 years old, a record high. And, of the 4 million women who have babies each year, more than 100,000 are 40 years and older.

"Are we just doing the hip mom thing in order to round up an audience to sell minivans to," Gore asks, "to make you feel like you have to buy a lot of stuff? 'No, you're not washed up. We've got some really cute bags for you. You don't have to lose your Sex-and-the-City edge.'"

Platina-Phipps, 37, who owns a design and branding studio in New York City, admits that she fears losing her edge now that she's the mother of 17-month-old Giovanna. "I almost want to act out being hip now because I don't want to look like a mom," she says. "I just cut my bangs super short and started wearing dark lipstick to combat the dark circles under my eyes."

But she would rather be called a "creatively conscientious mother," she says. "In reality what I am is a mother who juggles a lot of different things and I try to have fun doing it."

For her, the upside to this new image of motherhood is that women of her generation seem to be freer from the old social strictures about motherhood. For example, she says a lot of her friends, once working full-time pursuing business careers, have chosen to scale back work to spend more time parenting. And although Platina-Phipps works full-time, she takes her daughter with her on business trips.

Harte, the co-owner of a graphic and web design studio who works from home, agrees. "It does seem like there is a real focus on the family," she says.

But Jones-DeWeever is quick to point out that with the country's current conservative swing and President Bush's agenda to promote marriage, only a certain kind of motherhood is considered hip and fashionable. Women who are poor or chose to become mothers outside of marriage or in same sex relationships are still subject to moralistic overtones.

"I think it's important that we embrace motherhood in the variety of different forms that it takes," she says.

Black Women Play Decisive Role

With a presidential election that is shaping up to be close, black women are poised to play a decisive role. The Democratic Party is home base for many, but the Republicans are trying to lure them over. At the same time, many younger African American women prefer to register as independents.

"This is a very polarized country we live in at this time," says Daniella Gibbs, deputy communications director for the Democratic National Committee. "So every vote is going to count."

And, it appears the one vote the Democrats can count on is from black women. Studies of the last three presidential elections show that black women are the most loyal Democrats of any demographic group.

"African American women are the base of the base of the Democratic Party," Gibbs says.

In the 2000 presidential race, 94 percent of black women voted for Al Gore, while only 6 percent supported George W. Bush, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an African American think tank based in Washington, D.C. Close to 9 million black women were registered to vote in the election, and of that number 7.6 million said they actually voted, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There were over 13 million black women in the U.S. in 2000.

Although Gore lost in 2000, black women helped him win key states, such as Pennsylvania, California and New York. Political consultant and commentator Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich points to Illinois, where white voters were split evenly between Bush and Gore. She says that the 10 percent of voters who were black women pushed Gore over the top to win the state with 54 percent.

Yet, too often, according to Scruggs-Leftwich, a professor at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, M.D., black women get lumped with white women when political pundits talk about the "women's vote." In the 1992 and 1996 elections, exit polls showed that white women's votes were relatively close to white men's votes for President Bill Clinton: 34 percent of white men and 44 percent of white women in 1992 and 31 percent of white men and 42 percent of white women in 1996.

Black women, on the other hand, voted overwhelmingly for Clinton. In 1992, he received 86 percent of their vote, and in 1996, 89 percent of them voted for him, according to the Joint Center.

When black women's votes were averaged with white women's, the "women's vote" gave Clinton a winning majority of 54 percent in 1992 and 51 percent in 1996.

Health Care, Education, Jobs

Black women tend to favor the Democratic Party because of the issues that appeal to them. "We vote our interests," says Gibbs from the Democratic National Committee.

Black women have shown an interest in health care, education, jobs and child care -- issues emphasized by the Democrats, says David Bositis, a senior researcher for the Joint Center.

Melanie Campbell, executive director of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Inc., a Washington-based nonpartisan group that strives to increase black participation in the political process, believes these issues are important to black women because they are more likely to head up their households and be the primary breadwinners for their homes.

Black women also make up a large proportion of the senior population, adds Bositis, which means they are interested in Social Security and Medicare, issues the Democrats have tended to capitalize on.

More Black Women Vote than Men

Because they are more attached to a political party, black women are also more likely to vote and participate in the political process than black men and white women, according to Bositis. The Joint Center found that they are voting in larger numbers than even black men. In the last presidential election, 6 out of 10 black voters were women.

One reason, Bositis points out, is because there is a larger percentage of black men who are felons or ex-felons and have lost the right to vote. He says about one in seven black men is ineligible to vote, and in some states, such as Florida and Alabama, the number is as high as 30 percent.

Also, more black women are participating in politics than white women. Bositis says that about 35 percent of black elected officials are women, while white women make up 21 percent of white elected officials. The percentage of women in the Congressional Black Caucus is higher than the percentage of women in the entire Congress.

Black women's love affair with the Democratic Party dates back to the Franklin D. Roosevelt administrations, when many blacks switched from the party of Lincoln. It was solidified during the 1950 and 60s, when Democrats pushed through Civil Rights legislation.

According to Scruggs-Leftwich, black women worked behind the scenes in churches, parent groups and civic organizations, which allowed them to play a role in politics once they gained access in the 1960s. Today black women have served at the helm of the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials. They are all longtime veterans of politics.

Scruggs-Leftwich is concerned that there are not enough younger women to take their place. "I fear that we will lose the perspective and the organizing power as these younger women choose other careers," she says.

Republicans Reaching Out

All this may mean an opportunity for the Republicans. A small but growing number of black women are choosing the Republican Party. Felicia Davis, an advisory board member of the Black Women's Roundtable, a Washington-based group committed to getting more black women involved in the political process, considers herself a "progressive" Republican, meaning she is involved in civil rights and other social issues.

She says Republicans are aggressively trying to recruit more black women. She points to GOPAC, a training organization based in Washington, D.C., for Republican candidates whose new chairperson, former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, a black man, has made it his mission to get more minorities and women in the party.

Yet, Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser and one of the most prominent black female Republicans, is not necessarily a role model for black women. Says Bositis: "Black women are not looking at Condi Rice because their primary voting motivation are not issues having to do with foreign policy or national security." Adds Gibbs, "The bottom line is she does not affect social policy and it's the social policy that is hurting African Americans."

Davis says young black women today have less historical allegiance to a political party than she had growing up with a grandmother who was a "Lincoln Republican."

"They have a different reality," she says. "They are going to assess what's advantageous to me."

Registering Independent

Young black women, like many young people, are choosing not to affiliate with either party and instead declare themselves independent. "One of the things my friends say is, 'In my heart, I'm a Democrat, but I'm going to register independent,'" says Gibbs. "They want to be looked at as a swing voting block."

Bositis says young black women may identify less as Democrats than older black women but still far more than young black men. "Younger black men are the group in the black population that is least Democratic," he says. "They are self-identified independents, which means they don't have any emotional attachment to the Democratic Party."

Campbell of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation says neither party speaks fully to black women and believes that more black women need to support each other for public office. She says the reason Carol Moseley Braun, the former U.S. Senator from Illinois and ambassador to New Zealand, had to give up her bid for the presidency was because she ran out of money. "Black women have a harder time getting the dollars," she says.

That's why she helped start a group called Future PAC, a black women's political action committee based in Washington, D.C. By bundling their dollars together, members of the group hope to encourage more black women to run for office.

Davis believes that when the needs of black women, who remain at the bottom socio-economically, are taken care of, then all of society will be taken care of.

"I argue in my party all the time that my problem is the quintessential problem," she says. "We have to lift our voices wherever we are."

Luchina Fisher is a freelance writer and producer in New York.


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