Motherhood Organizing: Disability and Resistance

By Panitch, Melanie | Canadian Dimension, September-October 2006 | Go to article overview

Motherhood Organizing: Disability and Resistance


Panitch, Melanie, Canadian Dimension


Battle Cries: Justice for Kids with Special Needs

by Miriam Edelson

Sumac Press, 2005

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Becoming Citizens: Family Life and the Politics of Disability

by Susan Schwartzenberg

University of Washington Press, 2005

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Of the many social movements that have struggled for social justice and equality, the history of activism by mothers of disabled children has been sorely neglected. Ever since the 1950s, when Pearl S. Buck wrote The Child Who Never Grew (1950) and Dale Evans Rogers wrote Angel Unaware (1953) about their respective disabled daughters, women's narratives have provided a documentary trail to that history. Given the social stigma attached to disability at the time, the impact of two prominent mothers claiming disability in their family cannot be underestimated. By "coming out," they boosted the many parent-led charities that were beginning to form to advocate for certain disabling conditions. Despite the "official" reference to parents, it was primarily young mothers who founded and joined these groups. They looked for mutual support to challenge century-old institutional provisions and establish services in the community. Right from the beginning, it was mothers who led the way. These activist mothers likely never considered themselves activists at all; they were just doing what needed to be done. Yet, they organized in the domestic space women occupied--their homes and, primarily, their kitchens.

Since then there has been a virtual outpouring of mothers' first-person accounts, which provide an important genre of disability literature in Canada and beyond. For the most part, these sources, even those recently published, have tended to focus on the personal experience: the mother's grief, the sense of loss at not having a "normal" child, coping strategies, the balancing act required to keep the family intact and the endless regime of applications for benefits and appointments.

Two new books situated within the rich tradition of mothers' narratives have broken new ground and gone beyond the "personal" to the broader political context. Both are written by feminists: Miriam Edelson is a Canadian labour-movement activist, and Susan Schwatzenberg is an American artist who designed the Rosie the Riveter Monument in Richmond, California to memorialize women's war-time work in the shipyards. And both share a commitment to uncovering women's invisible work and adding mothers' disability activism to social-movement literature. They illuminate complementary aspects of political advocacy by showing how advocating for services has brought mothers--and in some cases fathers--into a broader relationship with the state.

Schwartzenberg chronicles the lives of thirteen "senior parents" in the Seattle Family Network who raised children with developmental disabilities between 1940 and 1980. In a project funded by the City of Seattle's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, Schwartzenberg embedded herself as an artist-in-residence with the Seattle families. She brought an impressive artistic repertoire and a background in social justice--though no previous exposure to disability politics. She began with conversation--around food--starting with a "potluck" dinner. She listened to how this post-war generation--the first wave of activist mothers--refused medical opinions that would have them institutionalize their children.

Using visual documents--mementos from family archives, personal photographs, and newspaper accounts--she generated a method to document the network's forty-year history.

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