Are Motherhood Politics a Good Idea?

"Does the mommy movement bother you?" Pamela Tsigdinos recently asked readers of her blog Coming 2 Terms. It was a little more than a week after Sarah Palin's You Tube-arrific speech at the Republican National Convention, and mommies -- the one smiling beatifically at her five kids, the one her daughter was about to become, the ones Palin was supposed to appeal to -- were on everyone's mind.

On Slate.com's XX Factor blog, Meghan O'Rourke praised the vice-presidential nominee -- who has called herself an "average hockey mom," "team mom," the "mother of one of those troops" -- for doing "something I've always thought female politicians should make more use of. She used her authority as a mother -- the vital center of many families, and the first authority figure many of us know -- to coax Americans into seeing her as a 'force to be reckoned with,' as CNN kept putting it."

Palin's speech was proof: Maternalist politics have arrived -- again. Over the last two years, mothers -- particularly progressive mothers -- have become increasingly vocal on a number of political issues. In her 2007 book "Mamarama," feminist author Evelyn McDonnell says that she would "like to reclaim momism as a growing branch of activism," adding that it "could be to the aughties what civil rights were to the '60s."

Palin's approach seems to be a little bit different than what McDonnell had in mind. With a high-paying job and flexibly-employed husband, she hasn't been outspoken on the issues that typically concern progressive, feminist, and increasingly, activist mothers, like paid sick leave, maternity and paternity leave, and excellent child care. In some ways, her personal politics of motherhood seem retrograde: by mentioning that her son was about to go to war, she hearkened back to old ideas about mothers having a special moral authority. But, ironically, she merges this with a newer, more explicitly feminist idea: that she is a particularly adept administrator because she is a mother.

"What she seems to be running on is the fact of her motherhood, not an ethos of care," said Jan Ellen Lewis, a professor of history at Rutgers University, Newark. "And I think that is unprecedented."

This country's most vocal activist mothers take very different positions from Palin. There are now a whole host of moms' groups in this country; the most prominent, MomsRising.org, is a 150,000-strong group of women who agitate for universal health care, the Family Medical Leave Act, and fair pay for mothers, among other issues. There has been a proliferation of women blogging politics from a mother's perspective, like PunditMom and Mom-101; this past summer, at BlogHer, a conference for female bloggers, mommy bloggers at the panel "Is Mommyblogging Still a Radical Act?" repeatedly referred to themselves as a "movement." In June, Seal Press released The Maternal is Political a book of essays by mothers, many discussing how having children radicalized them.

Unlike previous elections where "soccer moms" and "security moms" were anointed by pollsters, these mothers have chosen this political identity. But as maternalist politics have escalated, so too have their detractors who, like Tsigdinos -- though she said she is a progressive -- believe maternalist politics are "exclusionary at best and insulting at worst."

This is not the Mommy Wars redux, with stay-at-home dads and so-called "non-breeders" throwing the proverbial sippy-cup at newly politicized mothers. Those who question or criticize these moms are less a vocal counterinsurgency than a collection of occasional protests, generally relegated to a blog post here, a trickle of comments there.

At BlogHer, the mommyblogger "movement" seemed to rankle some women, particularly those who attended a session on adoption, loss, and infertility. Most of the time, the ambivalence comes from men who are proud to be involved fathers or women who can't or simply don't have children who want to know: Is it expedient to politicize motherhood? Is it divisive? Does it underscore old gender stereotypes about women being the more nurturing sex? Does it sideline men, whose involvement in issues affecting children should be encouraged?

Shari MacDonald Strong, the editor of The Maternal is Political, says that she was only marginally interested in politics before having her two sons. Afterward, however, "I was more interested in the subjects of war and peace and the draft and what our involvement in the Middle East means not just for the country, but for my children especially."

Maternalist politics are no historical anomaly. Mothers have long organized around issues they claimed to have a special interest in. In the Progressive Era, women actively entered politics as they sought to clean up streets or get health care for children. During World War II and the Vietnam War they organized for peace. During the civil-rights movement, right-wing mothers took part in anti-integration pro-segregation protests, claiming that they had a particular interest in the issue because they wanted their children to be in the best schools.

Some first-wave feminists argued that women "deserved the right to vote because they were mothers raising future citizens and, as such, their voices needed to be heard," said Ruth Feldstein, an associate professor of history and American studies at Rutgers University, Newark.

And as long as there have been maternalist politics there have been controversies about maternalist politics. "It's the basic debate within feminism, which is, 'do women get rights as equals or because they are different?'" Lewis said.

One blog commenter concurred. "I recognize and accept that motherhood can be a profound and galvanizing experience for many women, but it seems to me that in a perverse way, when we allow motherhood to be the defining issue for women, we are inadvertently returning to the time when biology was destiny, and motherhood was used to exclude women from spheres of public influence," she said.

Said another: "The idea, whether implicitly or explicitly expressed, that non-parents are somehow lacking or lesser beings than parents, drives me up the wall."

Some women see the politicization of motherhood as an extension of an oppressive momism. Tsigdinos, whose blog tackles the issue of infertility, takes particular offense to the modifier "as a mother" or "as a mom" because it "implies a greater understanding of a particular issue, experience, etc," she said. "By association this implies that anyone who is not a mother lacks such insight or value and is by definition a second-class citizen. From where I sit, the elevation and lionization of mothers marginalizes women who couldn't have children, chose not to have them, or are single. The fallacy here is that we who are not mothers don't care or can't relate to children. Not true. I adore my nieces and nephews and want very much for children everywhere to live safe, happy lives with access to good health care and education opportunities."

Many fathers, of course, want the same things. Joe Biden and John Edwards both made themselves out to be caretakers; the former touted his years as an "Amtrak dad" and the latter loudly campaigned against toxic toys. Younger, involved fathers, in particular, feel ambivalent about moms organizing around issues they feel have an impact on them as well. Pierre Kim, who blogs at Metrodad, says he is particularly concerned about "affordable day care, emergency day care, maybe not mandatory but more acceptance of paternity leave, expansion of the Family Medical Leave Act."

Groups that make these into "mothers' issues" might be doing themselves a disservice. "Men aren't going to join a revolution that doesn't have their name on it," says Kim, who has a daughter, though he adds that he does not want to detract from what groups like Momsrising.org are doing.

But Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, the executive director of MomsRising.org, says that women are organizing around motherhood not because they bring special skills to the table or have a special ethos of caring, but because of the economic hits that women take when they become mothers. "Right now, some of the toughest fights for women's equality overall are surrounding motherhood issues," she says. "Women without children make 90 cents to men's dollars. Married moms make 73. And single moms make about 60 cents. Since 81 percent of American women have kids by age 44, a large portion of the wage gap between men and women is the maternal wall." She also says that the issues her group organizes around -- like paid family leave, paid sick days -- help everyone whether they are a mother or not.

That said, the nomination of Palin exposes the fault lines inherent in this kind of organizing.

"It's misleading to assume that all mothers would take the same positions, but that doesn't negate the fact that this is a very exciting thing that we are being recognized as a group," says MacDonald Strong. That the Republicans even nominated Palin "speaks volumes to where motherhood and politics are today."

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