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Why Be Political? By Kristin Teigen


Despite years of supposed gains by women in nearly every profession, so many countries do better than us when in comes to including women in public decision-making. The number of women working in the West Wing has declined a whopping 17 precent in the past six years. We rank just slightly better than Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the number of women in government, and far behind most European countries. Even the new government in Iraq has 19 percent women, and South Africa, still recovering from a government based on discrimination, has 46 percent women. These numbers can translate directly into a different life for women and children. Out of the top six nations that Save the Children has ranked as the best for maternal and child health, (Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Germany and Austria), each one outperforms the United States with the number of women in government. The more women leaders, it seems, the healthier we are, and the healthier our children are. How else do we rank? To be sure, the United States does far better than many countries, but the only economically advanced nation worse than the United States in terms of infant mortality is Hungary. In the U.S., 22 percent of all children live in relative poverty -- in households with incomes less than half of the national median -- more than in any other wealthy nation in the world. In 2004, despite horrific stories of children giving birth to children all throughout the developing world, the United States had the highest adolescent birth rate among industrialized nations. Would this be the case if mothers were being heard?

Of the mothers who are political leaders in the United States, many started to climb the political ladder only after their children had grown, such as the new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. In fact, women leaders who have small or school aged children are not only rare, but also heavily scrutinized. Former Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift became the target of virulent attacks when, as the mother of a toddler, she became pregnant with twins while in office. Faced with criticism that some have argued a man would never face, she tearfully announced that she would not seek re-election. Had she stayed in the race, her opponent in the primary would have been Mitt Romney, who later won the election, finding no criticism for his long life in politics despite being the father of five. He is now being touted as a Republican front-runner for president. Do stories like this mean that women need to sit out of the political process for eighteen long years, relinquishing the field to men until our kids head off to college? Some people think so. A 2000 national survey by Deloitte and Touche found that 17 percent of Americans would be "less likely" to vote for a woman with a child under age 6 compared with just 6 percent of the public declaring itself "less likely" to vote for a similar male candidate.

One result of the lack of mothers in the political process is that the men who are in power feel they can take shots at us for a myriad of perceived ills in society. Historically, mothers have been blamed for everything -- crime, communism, poverty, the breakdown of the traditional family and even autism. Rather than deal with complex social and economic forces at the root of most problems, scapegoating mothers becomes the easy way out. As Molly Ladd-Taylor writes in Bad Mothers: The Politics of Blame in the Twentieth Century, leaders feel free to fault women who stay home for their supposed laziness and then, the next day, attack women who work outside of the home for their apparent lack of maternal instinct. We can't win. Single mothers, as shown in Dan Quayle's 1992 attack against television character Murphy Brown, are perhaps the most despised of all, blamed for any element of lawlessness and immorality in society. Would male leaders feel so comfortable making such attacks if they were actually sitting next to one of us, or if they realized we might just fight back?

Beyond the fact that we are apparently invisible to some, motherhood introduces many of us to a surprising feeling -- powerlessness. Yeah, we sustain life, but can we go to the bathroom when we need to? Women in our generation are used to having choices, choices in our careers, over our bodies, and in our education. Now, we certainly do not have a choice about being awakened in the middle of the night, getting to daycare on time, dealing with a tantrum, or missing work because of a sick child. I certainly wouldn't trade motherhood for my previous freedom, but there are times when I want to once again feel like I hold the reins. Sure, my children realize that I'm powerful when I control snacks and the remote, but does anybody else? Does anyone else know how much I care about what's going on around me?

So, again, what to do? Well, we're already doing so much. By raising thoughtful, caring, deeply loved children, we are truly doing the greatest service to society of all, a service that needs much greater recognition. Just imagine what our world would be like if nobody knew how to share? How to take turns? How to treat each other? Indeed, teaching kids to be active with you can make parenting even more powerful. By showing our children how to be citizens, how to participate in our collective society, we can ensure a future replete with thoughtful participants. Motherhood has also given us the perfect set of skills, from negotiation to patience to incredible stamina, to be amazing in whatever political work we want to do. Further, as the terms "soccer mom" and "security mom" denote, when we exercise our basic right to vote, we can change the face of elections. It is a power we need to grasp with both hands.

Beyond this, can we all, as mothers, change more than diapers? Can we do more to have our voices heard? Obviously, not every woman wants to run for elected office. I know I don't. Yet there are dozens upon dozens of ways to make change -- small ways, easy ways, cheap ways -- which can ensure that those of us who are so deeply invested in our collective future don't fade into the background. That is what resources like Mothers Movement Online are about -- knowing our own power, embracing our motherhood as a source of incredible strength, demanding to be heard. By grabbing onto our power, in any way we can, mothers will change the world. We will. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "A woman's will is the strongest thing in the world." No matter what motivates you, no matter what you care about, you can, and will, be heard.

Mmo : august 2007

Kristin Teigen is a stay-at-home mother of two small children, a graduate student and an activist. She is a former staff member of the National Organization for Women and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, among other nonprofit organizations. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Also on MMO:

We can’t go back, but we can’t stay here
By Kristin Teigen

Taking on the Big Boys -- and how to get started:
An interview with Ellen Bravo

Interview by Judith Stadtman Tucker

Can you have a job and a life?
Excerpt from "Taking On The Big Boys"
By Ellen Bravo

Beyond bumper stickers:
An introduction to working for change

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

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