Ruth Rosen: The Motherhood Manifesto





[Ruth Rosen, a journalist and historian, teaches public policy and history at U.C. Berkeley, is a senior fellow at the Longview Institute, and the author of The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America.]

A baby is born. A child is stricken with a serious illness. A spouse has a stroke. A parent falls ill. These are the kind of events that throw a working mother’s delicate balance between her job and her family into chaos.

Poor and minority women have long worked in the paid labor force. During the last four decades, middle class women have joined them, but American society has done precious little to restructure the workplace or family life. The result? Working moms get treated to brunch or dinner on Mother’s Day, but are burdened and exhausted the rest of the year.

Just in time for Mother’s Day, Joan Blades, co-founder of the online activist organization MoveOn.org, has launched a grassroots campaign dedicated to making mothers’ private choices and dilemmas a central part of our national public conversation and political agenda.

She and co-author Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner have just published The Motherhood Manifesto (Nation Books), filled with elegantly accessible stories that reveal the problems faced by working mothers in the early 21st century, Their book is also prescriptive, counseling such essential changes as paid parental leave, flexible working conditions, after-school programs, high-quality affordable child care and realistic living wages.

Blades has done something similar to what Betty Friedan accomplished in her groundbreaking 1963 book The Feminine Mystique . When she interviewed educated housewives in the late 1950s, Friedan discovered that many of them felt depressed and experienced their lives as meaningless. She called this “the problem that has no name,” named it “The Feminine Mystique,” and suddenly we had a language to describe the lack of identity experienced by millions of housewives who lived through and for their families.

The modern women’s movement excelled at naming private experiences and turning them into public and political issues. Before the movement, for example, we had no language for date rape, wife beating, sexual harassment or “The Second Shift.” “That’s life,” we said to each other, with a shrug of the shoulders.

What Blades has begun is nothing less than a full-frontal exposure of what I call the Care Crisis. It’s as though Americans are trapped in a time warp, assuming that women will still care for children, the elderly and our communities. But they can’t­because more than half are working outside of their homes. Meanwhile, working moms suffer in silence, politicians ignore the Care Crisis and most of us don’t even have a way of discussing this pandemic problem.

The Motherhood Manifesto web site asks us to sign a petition to “Tell American leaders: It’s time to support common-sense family-friendly policies that protect and invest in mothers, children and families.”

Nothing could be more apt for Mother’s Day, a holiday that began with women engaged in political protest. The founders of Mother’s Day are grinning in their graves at appearance of The Motherhood Manifesto. That’s because they considered Mother’s Day a time for political protest. At the very least, they’d expect us to get out and protest the deaths of people who have died in the Iraq war or from social neglect. But they’d also expect us to protest our society’s indifference to the problems faced by working mothers.

Let me take you on a quick trip into the history of this holiday. Mother’s Day began as a day to commemorate women’s public activism, not as the celebration of one individual mother’s devotion to her own family. In 1858, Anna Reeve Jarvis organized Mother’s Work Days in West Virginia. Her immediate goal was to improve sanitation in Appalachian communities. Later, in 1872, Julia Ward Howe­author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”­promoted an annual “Mothers’ Day for Peace.” Devoted to abolishing all wars, Howe wrote: “Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage. ... Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be tender of those of another country not allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

Unfortunately, she turned out to be wrong.

For the next 30 years, Americans celebrated Mother’s Day for Peace on June 2. To women activists, the connection between motherhood and the struggle for social and economic justice seemed self-evident. These were middle-class women reformers who had fought to end slavery, launched campaigns against lynching, exposed consumer fraud, fought for suffrage and improved working conditions for women workers, ended child labor, demanded clean food and drugs and insisted upon social welfare assistance to the poor.

In 1907, Anna Jarvis, daughter of the original Virginia organizer decided to campaign for a national Mother’s Day. By then, America was well on its way to becoming a consumer society. Politicians and businessmen eagerly embraced the idea of celebrating the private sacrifices made by individual mothers. As The Florists’ Review, the industry’s trade journal, bluntly put it, “This was a holiday that could be exploited.” Heavily lobbied by the flower and card industries, Congress declared the second Sunday in May to be Mother’s Day in 1914.

The new advertising industry quickly taught Americans how to honor their mothers­by buying flowers. Outraged by florists who sold carnations for the then-exorbitant price of $1 a piece, Anna Jarvis campaigned against those who “would undermine Mother’s Day with their greed.” Naturally, she lost. Since then, Mother’s Day has ballooned into a billion-dollar holiday.

During recent decades, women activists have resurrected Mother’s Day as a holiday that celebrates women’s political engagement in society. Women have protested at nuclear test sites and have marched against gun violence. This year Codepink: Women for Peace will hold a national vigil in the nation’s capital to protest the needless deaths of American and Iraqi soldiers and civilians.

Nineteenth-century women dared to dream of a day that honored women’s commitment to peace, justice and political activism. We can do no less. We should honor their vision by committing ourselves to solving the Care Crisis and promoting the rights of working mothers.


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