Elliott Gorn: There's A Long Liberal Tradition of Motherhood and Social Justice

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Elliott Gorn teaches history at Brown University. He is the author of "Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America," published in 2001 by Hill and Wang.]

Cindy Sheehan has stumbled onto something big that has deep roots in American culture, and liberals ought to pay attention. She has single-handedly, and despite the smear campaigns of administration supporters, revived an old tradition of liberal motherhood.

It is a simple idea: Americans assume that motherhood confers wisdom, humane knowledge, moral authority. Those qualities have propelled liberal goals in the past and they might do so again.

Conservatives have been playing their own version of the maternal card for decades now. Lurking behind much of the "family values" agenda is a traditional ideal of motherhood.

But a century ago, progressives relied on maternal ideas to great effect.

Jane Addams, the founder of the settlement house movement, argued that women had a special feel for the needs of the poor and that female voices needed to be heard to humanize urban slums and brutal working conditions.

Women like Addams effectively used the metaphor of house cleaning to support their campaigns of improved municipal services and against political corruption.

The power of motherhood also propelled the suffrage movement, which brought the vote to all American women at the end of World War I.

Many suffragists argued that women deserved a place in politics because women were different from men, and that mothers' unique sensibility gave them a kind of wisdom that men lacked.

In other words, an old conservative idea - putting women on pedestals, after all, had justified disenfranchising them - was turned on its head.

Or take the legendary radical labor leader, Mother Jones. She worked among coal miners and steel workers during the first decades of the 20th century. More, she organized women in breweries, garment factories and textile mills.

But she didn't stop there. She also organized workers' wives into "mop and broom" brigades that demonstrated against oppressive conditions.

And in 1903, she led "The March of the Mill Children" from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt's home on Long Island in protest against child labor.

When my biography of Mother Jones came out a few years ago, interviewers often asked me to whom I would compare Mother Jones today. I used to stumble over that question, but now I would answer "Cindy Sheehan."

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duane william cunningham - 8/29/2005

The writer lost me on the following:
She is equating Cindy with a tradition that actually meant something. Cindy doesn't come close. Her son died supporting the cause she despises. He RE-ENLISTED in a combat zone, when he had a chance to go home. If anything, she should honor her sone and his choice not denegrate it. The writer seems to forget that the Classical liberals fought for the same issues that many conservatives espouse. She injects her present belief system into the past; it simply does not work. Conservatives don't put women on pedistals, but our sterotyping writer would have us believe it. Sencerity in the loss of her son is completly believable, and honest. Being a pawn of the radical left, like ANSWER and OPERATION PINK, is also believable. The writer tries to use skewed fact to inject her philosophy into Sheehan, and make her a hero.... she is not; her son was. The write just does't get it.