The maternal is the political

In a new book, one of the founders of argues that the next Web-based grass-roots political movement should be led by mothers.

Nina Burleigh
May 23, 2006 3:53PM (UTC)

Whatever we think of the perennial quest, undertaken most recently by Caitlin Flanagan and Judith Warner, to unpack the political, social, sexual and economic ramifications of American motherhood, we can agree on one thing: All the verbiage has not yet produced a more family-friendly nation. Now comes Joan Blades, co-founder of, with an idea she says whose time has come: a Web-based, grass-roots attempt to weld mothers into a coherent political force. Earlier this month, Blades launched a multimedia campaign to spark this mother's movement. The centerpiece of the effort is the Web site,, which signed up 40,000 members during its first week online, after it was advertised in an e-mail blast to the 3 million members of

In conjunction with the new Web site, Blades co-wrote and released a new book, "The Motherhood Manifesto: What America's Moms Want and What to Do About It." The book, with a Rosie the Riveter-style, kerchief-clad woman on the cover elbow-curling an infant, is an even-tempered examination of six problems Blades and her coauthor, environmental policy consultant Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, believe American mothers need to see addressed -- whether they're home or working, Republican or Democrat. Each chapter also includes harrowing anecdotes from stretched and strained working mothers, and sometimes, fathers, struggling to be parents in the United States today.


Blades and Rowe-Finkbeiner intend their book and Web site to be nonpartisan, which explains the underlying restraint with which they deliver their arguments. In the nation of motherhood, they say, there are no red states or blue states, just one big, shared landscape in which mothers want roughly the same things. As laid out in their "manifesto," those things correspond with the mnemonic acronym "MOTHER": maternity and paternity leave, open and flexible work, TV we choose and other after-school programs, healthcare for all kids, excellent child care, and realistic and fair wages. To some cynics, "The Motherhood Manifesto" might sound an awful lot like the policies progressives have been fighting for with little or no success for years.

Blades, 50, and Rowe-Finkbeiner, 37, each have two children, and both work from home, Blades from Berkeley, Calif., and Rowe-Finkbeiner from Washington state. Salon spoke to them recently by phone about the pay bias against mothers, why quality television programming is a political issue, and how mothers can swing the next election.

What was the genesis of this project?


Blades: A couple of years ago I wrote a two-page document that I called "The Motherhood Manifesto," which was very similar to what's in the book. I shared it with Arianna Huffington and she invited me to talk about it at a gathering of political types she held in her home after the 2004 election. So I did, and a number of powerful people told me they thought it was a great idea. That was the inspiration for doing the book. The issues have been out there, but the general public is not mobilized around them.

"The Motherhood Manifesto" is also the name of a documentary we produced. The women we feature in the book are in the film and we will be previewing it in June at the Take Back America conference. After that, we will do organizing around it. We want to create massive grass-roots support for issues that affect mothers. Once people realize that it's not just their personal problem but that these are issues we all share, I think there will be a huge opportunity to back good leadership and good policy.

Dedicated people have been out there promoting these very issues in legislatures across the country and in Washington for decades without success. How is your effort different?


Blades: As a founder of, I have seen the power of grass-roots mobilization. It's unleashing the so-called wisdom of crowds. Give people a connection and a way to engage and they will, in deep and intelligent ways.

Rowe-Finkbeiner: We are developing a blogging roster on for people who will be able to come in and talk about what is important to them, whether it's child care, healthcare or other issues. Also going up is a networking function, an online forum so moms can talk to moms and organizations can talk to organizations about who is doing what where.


We are trying to offer avenues for engagement -- everything from reading a story about other mothers' dilemmas and solutions to calling your legislator. Ultimately we'd love to have a "how to start your own group" piece. Certainly we'll do house parties around the film. We are also encouraging book groups. There are also talking points if you want to get together as a play group or for afternoon tea. Basically we are saying here are some things to discuss, and some background. It's community building in person as well as online.

Blades: We are going to learn a lot from our members about what they want to work on. We are going to give them opportunities to engage. And they will give us great ideas. That's where we will go deeply and explore more. I believe good online work is a two-way dialogue. The Web site went up this week and it is rapidly growing. We have had an amazing response, with close to 40,000 members signing on in five days. We have both a petition and a sign-up. The petition urges policymakers to be more genuinely family-friendly by supporting legislation to close the wage gap between mothers and men. It reads: "It's time for our leaders to do more than talk about valuing families. Join us as we let American leaders know we support common sense family-friendly policies that protect and invest in mothers, children, and families today."

Can we realistically hope to mandate things like more maternity/paternity leave and open and flexible work in today's political and economic climate? Are there any companies that are models for this? You mention Google in the book, but are there others?


Rowe-Finkbeiner: One model is Johnson Moving and Storage in Denver. They have done an amazing job with open and flexible work in a sector not known for flexible work. They are able to attract and retain really high-qualified employees by offering them flexible schedules. JetBlue is another company with flexible options. They make people's homes satellite offices. All the reservation agents work from home, many part-time. Most of these folks are in Utah and a whole lot of them are moms.

Did you organize the issues in the acronym MOTHER in descending order of priority? Because it seems to me the last two, healthcare and wages, ought to be at the top.

Blades: We recognize that you can't fix one thing and not have all the others affected. Employers have a problem offering work flexibility because they are trying to minimize the cost of healthcare and don't want to hire two people to share a job, even though they would probably be more productive. Businesses are performing unnatural acts in order to avoid having high healthcare costs. We choose issues that a vast majority of Americans can recognize. These are needs we all share.


Why did you include "T" for TV? Why is good TV programming important for mothers?

Blades: "T" is for TV and other entertainment, and also for after-school programs. The fact is we've got 40,000 kindergartners home alone after school, and many of them are in front of the TV. We'd be in denial if we didn't recognize that TV is a huge part of how we raise our kids today. We want parents to support very clear ratings systems so that they know what is and is not appropriate for their kids and we want them to support educational programming.

Rowe-Finkbeiner: There are 12 million kids home alone every day after school. The most common time for crime is between 3 and 6 in the afternoon, and for teens to have unprotected sex. They need after-school programs.

You chose "E" for excellent child care. It seems as if child care has been turned into a trench war about morality and gender roles. Often, the discourse moves away from what mothers need to what mothers should be, and I think American mothers internalize that. I lived in France for a few years and found it to be much more genuinely family-friendly, partly because they offer affordable day care on every block and public school starting at age 3. No one questions whether the women putting children in these institutions are bad mothers. They just do it.


Rowe-Finkbeiner: Seventy-two percent of moms are in the workforce. The majority of families need two working parents in order to support their families. Right now all parents have to work an average of 500 more hours a year to keep up with 1979 income levels. To frame this issue as one about whether child care is good or bad for children really misses the point that most mothers need to work.

A lot of people feel it's their fault if they can't figure out how to make it work. But there are certain areas that are shared community problems. It's not just about parents. There really needs to be societal support to help parents care for children.

You chose "R" for realistic and fair wages for women. Let's talk about the pay bias against mothers. Aren't there legitimate reasons for it to be there? For instance, don't mothers -- parents, really, but mothers primarily -- tend to put their children before their employers? Don't childless women have more energy to expend on work?

Rowe-Finkbeiner: I will point out that it's Saturday and all three of us are mothers and we are all working right now. The fact is, mothers do not have lower job commitment. Dr. Shelly Correll, at Cornell, found mothers are 44 percent less likely to be hired than nonmothers given the same résumés and are offered $11,000 less as a starting salary. We don't talk about how much money we make. We need to in order to unearth this problem.


Blades: The other side of that question is, Shouldn't your kids be a priority for a man or a woman? And if they are, then you should not be punished for it. A lot of people are surprised by the fact that mothers are discriminated against. Women without children make 90 cents to a man's $1, so the majority of the gender gap is coming from mothers because 82 percent of all women are mothers. The inequality faced by mothers is pulling down all women.

This brings me to something that has bothered me since I first opened your book. You address this book to mothers. Why is it assumed that fathers can't do their share? Why is this "The Motherhood Manifesto" and not "The Parents' Manifesto"? Isn't that distinction a big part of the problem?

Blades: You will note that "M" is for maternity and paternity leave. Everything in this book is good for parents. But it's "The Motherhood Manifesto" because it is mothers against whom there is substantial bias in terms of wages. The single parents in this country are predominantly mothers. It's mothers and their children who are living in poverty. The need for work flexibility will be good for all parents.

Rowe-Finkbeiner: Fathers actually get a wage boost for having children. The traditional feeling is that men are supposed to support their children. Yet women now make up 46 percent of the labor force. We have old standards that haven't caught up with modern parenthood. Everybody should get a wage boost for having children. They're expensive.


Blades: Chapter "O," for open and flexible work, is the longest chapter because that's where there is the most opportunity for change. Most jobs are modeled after the "ideal worker," yet most workers don't fit into that category. The upper echelons of business are primarily male and if women get there they are usually childless. What businesses are doing is selecting by schedule. Is it really true that the smartest people are childless?

How do you plan to translate these ideas into reality, especially when so many family-friendly policies have failed already?

Blades: I think you eventually get to a tipping point. Many people would argue that the number of hours parents have to spend working is hitting a breaking point, and people can't take it anymore. This book and the online movement we are building are about trying to help that growing recognition take hold. We are telling it through the stories of people we can identify with. When I hear about Selina [a working mother described in the first chapter of the book] having to breast-feed and type at the same type, I think to myself, Something has got to give.

Rowe-Finkbeiner: We need to let business and political and community leaders know they have to support family-friendly politics. If leaders don't know they have support, it's harder.

Blades: Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy -- they are not getting traction when they try to do these things [increasing healthcare access and mandating fair wages]. It's like they are whistling in the wind. We need to be there for them. We need to provide them with grass-roots political capital so they know they have millions of citizens behind them ready to work to make sure these policies get enacted.

Do you see mothers as a silent political force?

Rowe-Finkbeiner: Yes. They are increasingly likely to be able to swing elections. Looking at the last two presidential elections, there was a 5 percent shift among married women between Gore and Kerry. That can make or break an election.

Most of the women described in the book are trying to balance child rearing with work. How do you get working and nonworking mothers to see their aims as similar?

Blades: I think when you focus on what's best for kids you see that your goals are the same.

Rowe-Finkbeiner: MomsRising is not just for working mothers. Certainly issues like access to healthcare, paternity leave and TV programming are relevant to both stay-at-home and working mothers. These issues relate to being a parent in general.

Don't you think that since you're affiliated with, a liberal organization, you will be seen as partisan and have a hard time attracting conservatives to this movement? Especially when you name leaders like Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton.

Blades: I think ultimately conservatives are going to hook up with us because it's the right thing to do. It's very hard for conservatives to do anything but team playing right now. But good citizens are starting to realize that team playing is not good in terms of getting good policy enacted. It has become very hard for people to behave as conscientious individuals as opposed to part of their team and that's a loss for everyone.

How do you know this manifesto is what American mothers want, as your subtitle suggests?

Blades: Women's intuition.

This story has been changed since it was first published.

Nina Burleigh

Nina Burleigh ( is author of “The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox.”

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