Marchers Play the 'Mother' Card ; as Million Mom Weekend Nears, History Shows That Invoking Motherhood Can Be a Potent Force for Change

By Ann Scott Tyson, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 11, 2000 | Go to article overview

Marchers Play the 'Mother' Card ; as Million Mom Weekend Nears, History Shows That Invoking Motherhood Can Be a Potent Force for Change


Ann Scott Tyson, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


They'll come armed with bottles and baby strollers, diaper bags and placards. They're even threatening time-outs. On Mother's Day, an estimated 150,000 women will march on the Capitol for stricter gun-control laws, mustering all the moral authority and emotional punch they can from their formidable status as "Mom."

The Million Mom March is the first movement to invoke motherhood to chasten the powerful US gun lobby and legislators who oppose what these women call "common sense" civilian gun laws. But American women have a long, rich history of successfully rallying under the maternal banner - especially to protect children and create a safer society.

"Motherhood has potent meanings in this culture," says Elaine Tyler May, a historian at the University of Minnesota. "Women are shrewd politically; they will use the power available to them."

Indeed, soon after the Revolutionary War, women used the patriotic idea of "republican motherhood" to justify their need for education - so they could raise sons to be moral citizens.

In the early 19th century, female abolitionists said their "sallying forth" from home to spread antislavery petitions was necessary to protect the chastity of the slaves and their owners.

In the 1880s, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which sent praying women to shut down saloons throughout the Midwest, called itself "organized mother love." Suffragists, meanwhile, likened the women's vote to civic housecleaning - a way to "sweep out the scoundrels."

And in 1915, according to historians, founders of the Women's Peace Party described themselves as "the mother half of humanity."

Today, more than 30 years after Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" and women's "liberation," women are playing the "mother" card, not because they have to, but because they want to and believe it will work.

"What we care about on intimate personal terms has to be translated into the stage of civic life," says historian Nancy Cott of Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

The mighty mother

Mothers can take on controversial issues - often when others can't or won't - because of the unique power and credibility they enjoy as the prime nurturers of human life, say scholars and activists. Mothers' motives are seen as pure, their love as unconditional. Their tactics include an irrepressible mixture of hard work, raw emotion, and earthy humor.

"We do have the mythic power of the mothers who lift 2-ton cars to save their child underneath," says Donna Dees-Thomases, a Springhills, N.J., mother of two and founder of the Million Mom March. "Now we have an 800-pound guerrilla in the form of the gun lobby who is sitting on our children. Who better than the moms to get it off?"

Added to this is a mother's daunting reputation as a fierce defender of her children - a.k.a. "Mommy Bear." "Everyone knows you don't mess around with moms, especially when their children are involved," says Betsy Storm, a mother and Million Mom March organizer in Chicago.

Historically, mothers have gradually extended their activism beyond their own homes and offspring to embrace the well-being of other children and the broader society. "It doesn't have to be your cub," says Lisa Dodson, a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, Mass. "There is a profoundly female protective piece here."

This has led to widespread participation by mothers and other women in movements to promote a society that is more just. …

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