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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
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
But once you begin to
see the motherhood problem, you start to see it everywhere.
My fate is sealed.
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.
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.
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
: september 2005