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Motherhood made me do it! Or, how I became an activist

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My husband and I rented The Motorcycle Diaries recently (we rarely see anything on the big screen anymore), and while the film's portrayal of Che Guevara's awakening as a revolutionary offers a highly romanticized version of the actual event, I could relate to the narrative. Once young Ernesto Guevara, a medical student, begins to see injustice, he starts to see it everywhere. You know by the end of the movie he has his heart set on overthrowing the system. His fate is sealed.

So there I was, a white, middle-aged, middle-class woman lying awake in my cozy bed in my comfortable house, my loving and beloved husband by my side, cute kids safe and warm in a room across the hall, and I'm thinking: Ol' Che and I had something in common. Once you see injustice, you begin to see it everywhere. And once you begin to see injustice everywhere, once you take the awareness of it into your heart, you can't stop thinking about what it would take to put things right. Unlike Che, I'm not a big fan of violent revolt. If middle-class mothers decided to get together and destroy the symbols of our oppression, what would we blow up? Our microwaves? Our minivans?

The motherhood problem is not a figment of our imagination. In fact, feminist writers and work-life researchers have been documenting it for over thirty years. The motherhood problem is embedded in stale ideas about the essential qualities of men and women and the irreducible needs of children. It's fortified by our social structure and political system, and the way we think about race and class in America. And it's tucked snugly into our social institutions, like marriage and the public school system and the free market economy. In fact, the motherhood problem is so tightly woven into the fabric of American society that it's extremely difficult to see. And because the motherhood problem is ultimately about the protection of privilege and the inequitable distribution of power in our society, it's very hard to shake.

But once you begin to see the motherhood problem, you start to see it everywhere.

My fate is sealed.

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As the story goes, Che's radicalization started with an epic journey. I'm much more of a homebody. When I travel, I like clean sheets, warm showers and regular meals. Not to mention, when the motherhood problem started wrecking my life and aroused my inner activist from her slumber, I had two small children to look after and a husband I was quite fond of. While an epic journey was not out of the question, it seemed ill-advised. So I started reading books and reports about motherhood and family policy, and later I started sharing what I learned with anyone who would listen. The whole thing snowballed from there.

Once in a while I'll be prattling away about the problem with maternalist politics, or the value of unpaid caregiving, or the pathetic response to the pressing need for more and better family policy in the U.S., and someone will ask me: "How did you get into this?" And suddenly, I'm at a loss for words. "This," the work of the mothers' movement, is unlike anything I've ever done before. I have no special qualifications for it -- no advanced degree in women's studies, no track record as a theorist or policy analyst or as an organizer, and not all that much to show as a writer. All I can say is that the complexities of my own lived experience as a mother led me to this work, the work of social change. And now it's the only kind of work that makes sense to me.

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The immediate task at hand is how to move ideas into action. We've defined the motherhood problem pretty well. We know what it looks like in women's lives, and for the most part, we know which policy solutions are called for. The momentum for change is growing. So how do we breathe life into the mothers' movement?

There is really no great mystery about what goes into effective organizing. Vision and impassioned leadership are only a small part of social activism. (some argue they are the most important part, but I'm not convinced that's true.) Effective organizing can take many forms, but it almost always involves funding, strategic planning, outreach, communication, coordination, and forming supportive partnerships with other organizations and community groups with compatible goals. This is the long, unglamorous slog of making social change. It doesn't have the feel-good buzz of donating clothing and supplies to the local homeless shelter, or volunteering to answer phones for a domestic violence hotline, or putting together a fundraising event to help families displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Effective organizing is not always fast or pretty, but it works.

The other piece of successful social movements is consciousness raising. Consciousness raising is what gets the message out and engages individual supporters where they live. And with mothers' issues, this can be very tricky. Motherhood is such an ideologically loaded topic that it's easy for open discussions to get off track. At the same time, consciousness raising only works when people have an opportunity to connect their personal stories to the bigger picture. As soon as possible, we need to figure out a better and quicker way to help women start the conversation about the motherhood problem -- and what to do about it -- in their own communities. This is not an insurmountable task. We have many inexpensive yet highly sophisticated communication tools at our disposal. We have a selection of good models. Expert knowledge is available. We just need enough people with ideas and relevant skills to make the commitment and make it happen.

But then, this work isn't about me, or my ideas -- I'm just a channel, an incubator. This work is about us -- mothers -- and the future of our sons and daughters and the well-being of America's workers and families. It's about laying the groundwork for a caring society -- the next New Deal. Above all, it's about social justice. If we want a mothers' movement, we will have to do the work. We have to give birth to it.

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Well. Perhaps I do sound like a bit of a zealot. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, "Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted." All right -- I'm creative. And I'm definitely maladjusted. But I don't know about the human salvation part -- that's a pretty tall order. Just thinking about it makes my hands sweat.

My eight-year old recently told me he wants to have a job like mine when he grows up. I was a little taken aback, since the last time we had this conversation he wanted to be a rock star -- not just any kind of rock star, mind you, an emo rock star. "So you want to be a women's rights activist?" (I thought I'd better double check). "No," he said, "I want to work to make the world a better place. Dad says that's what you do." So we've been talking about this off and on, and we concluded there are many different ways people can work to make the world a better place. Even rock stars can work to make the world a better place (but I'm not so sure about the emo thing).

So here I sit in my comfortable house in a quaint little town with my nice husband and two great kids, all my books, my "Women's Work Counts" posters, my trusty computer, and, at this very moment, a big friendly cat on my lap. In other words, there is nothing at all remarkable about me. I'm just another mother. And I'm working to make the world a better place, because it's the only thing that makes sense to me.

mmo : september 2005

Judith Stadtman Tucker is the founder and editor of the Mothers Movement Online. She lives in New Hampshire.

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