Organized Women and Working Moms
A BABY was passed around like the hors d’oeuvres — in this case, bruschetta, a fruit plate — among the 10 mothers who crowded into Ann Clark’s Sacramento home on a Tuesday night this month. No matter if the baby was crying; this was a child-friendly crowd.
The mothers all held jobs outside the home (pastry chef, singer in a band, lawyer, hairstylist, nanny) and many had flexible schedules to make it easier to care for their children. Like hundreds of others who have gathered over the last nine months, they huddled around a television to view “The Motherhood Manifesto,” a documentary about the obstacles still facing working mothers, including many of those in the room.
“I’m home with a 2-year-old, so there may be an interruption,” said Ms. Clark, 35, a social worker with two children and a three-day-a-week office job, as she recounted the viewing party the next day and talked about how she related to the mothers in the movie. Like them, she said, her financial situation felt precarious. She wasn’t sure she could count on keeping her part-time position next fall.
“These are issues I’m aware of and feel strongly about,” she said of the movie’s focus on subjects like universal child care, maternity and paternity leave, and workplace discrimination against mothers. That is why she joined MomsRising.org, the mother’s advocacy organization that made the documentary. “It’s a great opportunity to connect with friends — mothers — and together have a chance to change things,” she said.
For years, mothers have been taking to the Internet to blog or post messages about the travails of motherhood, commiserating, fuming or laughing about their shared lives. But in the last year there has been a marked increase in those who are going beyond simply expressing their feelings. In a throwback to their mothers’ — or was it their grandmothers’? — time, they are organizing about family and work issues.
A generation of mothers who are largely perceived as postfeminist in every way, from sex to economic discrimination, has begun a consciousness-raising that is almost old-fashioned were it not for the technology involved. Raised to believe that girls could accomplish anything, these women have reached parenthood, only to find they faced many of the same pay, equity and work-family balance issues that were being fought over decades before. From that awakening, they say, has come the inkling of a new movement.
In many ways, these groups are repackaging issues that have been around for nearly 50 years and have proven intractable despite the efforts of legions of activists, lawyers and elected officials.
But what MomsRising has done, the organizers say, is frame its concerns as family and economic issues, which resonate for a younger generation of women. (They say they will include the fathers later.)
It is not a coincidence that MomsRising is using the tactics of MoveOn.org, the influential liberal organizing site that helped propel Howard Dean’s presidential candidacy. One of the group’s founders is Joan Blades, who, with her husband, Wes Boyd, founded MoveOn.
MomsRising is the newest and most prominent in a loose coalition of advocacy groups, including Mothers & More, the Mothers Movement Online, Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights and the National Association of Mothers’ Centers, that are sharing information, joining together at rallies and signing one another’s petitions.
They, in turn, are starting to form alliances with labor groups and traditional feminist groups like the National Organization for Women. And they are communicating with what some might see as unlikely allies: traditional family values groups like the Christian Coalition.
The various mother’s rights groups are concentrating much of their effort at state legislatures. In Washington State, they met with the speaker of the house about passing a bill that would allow employees to be paid if they take family- or medical-leave time, and in California, they have proposed legislation that would make it illegal to discriminate based on family status. Senator Sheila Kuehl has agreed to author the bill, which is to be introduced this week. They are also hoping to be heard during next year’s presidential race.
It’s difficult to know just how big the burgeoning movement is. MomsRising, which has been around since last May, has attracted 80,000 members from around the United States. The goal, organizers say, is to build a nonpartisan grass-roots movement millions strong.
Seeing Nancy Pelosi swarmed by children moments after being sworn in as the first female House speaker gives them hope, they said, that they are gaining momentum in a more welcoming political atmosphere.
“It was a joyful thing to see the speaker of the House surrounded by kids,” Ms. Blades said. “We thought, ‘Wow, we’re in the right place at the right time.’ We’ve been waiting for this to happen; we’re ready for this to happen.”
What have these mothers been waiting for? It is all laid out in the MomsRising documentary, which was shown in Washington on Sept. 28 to a crowd that included Senator Ted Kennedy and presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton (her office helped organize the screening), Barack Obama and Christopher J. Dodd.
The film opens with one woman telling her friend that she and her husband have decided to have a baby. “Are you clueless?” the friend asks. “Don’t you know what happens to mothers in America?” One thing the movie makes clear: It isn’t good.
Using data and personal stories of mothers who have been discriminated against in the workplace, the film emphasizes that mothers are less likely to be hired, will make less money, and are more scrutinized for wrongdoing than either single women or men. The reason it cites: There are not enough family-friendly policies in place to help parents.
The seeds for MomsRising were planted in 2004, when Ms. Blades read a book about women and politics by Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, 36, a married mother of two. Ms. Blades, 51, said she was astonished to find that many younger women didn’t identify with feminism and by the data showing vast disparities in incomes between mothers and fathers, with single mothers faring particularly badly.
“I’d been doing the MoveOn thing for over eight years and I thought: ‘I’m an organizer and I wasn’t aware of this. I don’t know how many people are aware of this,’ ” she said.
Ms. Blades decided that America’s unfair treatment of mothers would be the subject for her next book, also called “The Motherhood Manifesto,” and she enlisted Ms. Rowe-Finkbeiner as her co-author. From the book came MomsRising, which is mainly financed by individual donors and private foundations.
The founders, each of whom has two children, claim that MomsRising is so new that they do not have a handle yet on who makes up their membership. But in interviews, some members said they grew up watching their mothers struggle to balance career and family.
And while their mothers agitated to be allowed into the workplace, most of these women don’t have the luxury of a choice. Today, 67 percent of women with children under the age of 18 are employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Anita Jackson, 29, of Berkley, Calif., who has an infant daughter, said MomsRising was “addressing true family values as opposed to ideology; real policies that would help moms and dads get to work, pay the bills and have a family life.” Particularly important to her, she said, are workplaces with flexible schedules and universal health care for children.
Like Ms. Jackson, Ashley Boyd, 36, also from Berkeley, was a member of MoveOn. Ms. Boyd, who does not have children but has been involved with women’s issues, said she first received an e-mail message about MomsRising on Mother’s Day last year. “I felt like it was expressing the ideas and energy and excitement I was looking for,” she said. It was she who convinced her friend Ms. Clark to hold the documentary viewing party in Sacramento.
At many house parties, the issue that has generated the most discussion is something that activists call “maternal profiling.” That is using information about a woman’s status as a parent to make managerial decisions, like whether to hire her and how much to pay her.
They are particularly moved by the story of Kiki Peppard, a Pennsylvania woman who, 12 years ago, was refused office jobs after employers found out she was a single mother of two. Ms. Peppard is a rallying point for many women, who are led by the film to believe — mistakenly — that such discrimination is legal. According to two experts in workplace law, it is not.
But many studies indicate that, legal or not, a woman’s status as a mother hurts her at work.
In one study, to be published next month in the American Journal of Sociology, Cornell researchers sent out résumés and cover letters to real employers for hypothetical job applicants. All had the same credentials, but the packages included subtle cues to indicate that some of the applicants were parents. (For example, a résumé might note that an applicant was an officer in a parent-teacher association.)
The goal was to find out if employers are less likely to pursue an interview if they find out that a candidate is a parent, said Shelley Correll, an associate professor of sociology at Cornell, who helped conduct the study. And the answer was “yes for mothers, no for fathers.”
For the women who are fired up about workplace inequities, there is an easy way to fight back, without even leaving the house.
“You get an e-mail to sign a petition,” Ms. Clark said, about the ease she had adding her voice to MomsRising, “and it takes five minutes and you’re done for the day.”
“For women, I know we want to lead more meaningful lives and make a difference, but it’s easy to feel overwhelmed,” she said. “But MomsRising makes it feel manageable. Plus, it creates a community, which is really fun.”
From NYTIMES Feb 22, 2007
by Kara Jessella