MMO: As you note in your book, the stereotypical feminist is bitter, humorless, and believes that "all men are pigs," "all women are saints," and "women who stay home with kids are wasting their lives." Even some organizers in the mothers' movement are reluctant to define their agenda as "feminist" due to concerns about alienating potential supporters. You describe your own work as based in "social justice feminism." What are the principles of social justice feminism, and why does feminism matter to the future of the mothers' movement?
Ellen Bravo: My definition of feminism is fully valuing women and work associated with women in order to help all people reach their potential. The Big Boys have profoundly devalued caregiving work both in the home and in the marketplace. While claiming to cherish motherhood, the Big Boys reveal their disdain for what mothers do when they declare that women on welfare "don't work" and when they pay poverty wages to child care workers, home health care workers and others who do caregiving work as paid employment. Feminism exposes this -- and also provides the framework to expect men to share this work, putting relationships on an equal footing and enriching men's lives by enabling them to share in the care of children and others. In the book I tell the story of a kid whose father says, "I really miss your ball games when I'm out of town, and I know you and Mommy miss me a lot, too." The boy replies, "I do, Daddy, but I miss you most when you're home."
Social justice feminism ensures that our scope includes all women. It takes into account women's different experiences depending on class, race and sexual orientation. We know we can't end domination by the Big Boys in one area if we allow it to continue in another. Social justice feminism centers on those who are most affected by injustice not out of guilt or pity, but from a recognition of power -- only in this way can we reach systemic solutions that guarantee meaningful change for all. For example, creating a new minimum standard of paid sick days will most help low-wage workers who now have none – having a sick child can mean not only losing a day's pay, but losing your job. But the process of winning this standard also helps expose the problem and challenge the corporate culture that makes women (and men) with paid sick days feel they'd better not use them.
MMO: Many mothers I've spoken with support transforming the workplace to help women reconcile paid work and caregiving (such as creating rewarding career tracks with more "off ramps" and "on ramps"). But a fair number are hesitant to advocate for legislative reforms (like paid sick days and parental leave). Mothers with professional training often want to see more market-driven solutions -- campaigns encouraging employers to adopt family-friendly practices because it's good for the bottom line, for example. This low-pressure approach certainly seems fair to employers -- but can it really work for women and families?
Ellen Bravo: We know that the changes we want aren't a favor for women, but a better way of doing business. My book has lots of examples of this. Smart employers know this, and we want to spread the word about their practices. But waiting for the Big Boys to make these changes on their own is like expecting two-year-olds to tell us when they need a time out. We have to build our capacity to make change from the bottom up.
MMO: You observe that "many people would like to do something about the problems that concern them, but don't know where to start." That's my impression as well -- mothers want change, but can't fathom adding a commitment to social activism to their overloaded "to do" list. There are structural barriers to individual activism as well -- for example, legislators often complain that women aren't showing up to support woman- and family-friendly legislation, but it's difficult for most mothers to attend committee hearings held during work hours or when child care is an issue (or if you're not connected to a network of activists who send out alerts when an important hearing date is coming up). In addition to participating in one-click activism through virtual organizations like MomsRising, what are other ways overscheduled mothers can start making change by starting small?
Ellen Bravo: Here are some of the possibilities I mention in the book: Share information about bills and candidates with friends, relatives and neighbors; contact elected officials and your local media to say what various initiatives would mean concretely to you and your family; if you can't attend a public hearing, make a poster with photos and a statement for someone else to bring; vote, and help educate and turn out others; support progressive candidates with activities you can do at home (like mailings or holding a house party); help prepare the next generation in the ways you play, share chores, deal with hurtful remarks, talk about future careers; be an informed consumer -- if a local store is targeted for not having sick days, for instance, let the owners know why you won't be shopping there until they change their practice. Above all, join organizations to magnify your voice.
MMO: Historically, effective cross-class organizing has been a challenge for the mainstream women's movement -- and within the new mothers' movement, there is a conspicuous divide between the goals of organizations targeting highly-educated, professional-class mothers who want more and better options for combining careers and family responsibilities, and groups organized by lower-income mothers who are agitating for basic workplace and education rights as well as public policies that recognize the value of their caring work. Is it possible to bring these groups together to work for change -- and if so, how can professional-class mothers' advocates start building strategic and supportive alliances with middle- and lower-income mothers?
Ellen Bravo: The best way to build alliances is by recognizing common interests and by having those with more opportunities take a stand with those who have fewer. For example, in New York a group called Domestic Workers United is organizing for basic rights. Contacting them to find the most effective ways to support their campaign is a concrete way to build bridges. Many state coalitions working to change public policies are vehicles where diverse groups come together.
mmo : august 2007