The Power of ONEsies

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Image by Kyle T. Webster

Contemporary mothers are chron­ically overburdened, sleep-deprived, and usually busy organizing something or other. And that’s made these working women notoriously difficult to organize for political action and social change.

A cyber-savvy bootstrap organization called MomsRising.org is up for the challenge. Recruiting thousands of mothers (and anyone who has a mother) to join via its website, MomsRising.org may have found the formula to engage, educate, and amplify the voices of America’s millions of mothers.

Most women in America become mothers (82 percent by the age of 44), and most mothers with kids under 18 (71 percent) work in the paid labor force.

While many mothers manage to juggle work and family commitments relatively successfully, millions of others find themselves crushed.

First, there are the wage hits: On average, women earn 25 percent less than their male counterparts. Mothers, in comparison to their childless female peers, take an additional estimated pay cut of 5 percent to 10 percent. There’s also the lack of flexibility to work reduced or flexible hours or to take time off when a child is sick or has a school emergency. And the realization that they must tolerate substandard child care because good alternatives are unaffordable. And the fact that taking a leave, even an unpaid leave, following childbirth might lead to a pink slip.

Facts like these led Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner to write The Motherhood Manifesto and–when their research revealed that U.S. policies to support mothers and families lag well behind those of other industrial nations–to found MomsRising.org in May 2006.

Stay-at-home and working mothers were essential to the success of the second wave of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s, but since then mothers have not had a leading voice. Blades and Rowe-Finkbeiner realized that organizing mothers was crucial to moving the United States toward becoming more family-friendly and, by doing that, to helping women take the final step toward equality.

Blades knew better than perhaps anyone in the country how to use new technology to mobilize ordinary citizens for political action: She and her husband founded the now 3 million-strong online grassroots organization MoveOn.org in 1998. And she is a mother, one who was shocked, she says, to find out how often mothers today hit invisible “maternal walls” (akin to “glass ceilings”) of job and wage discrimination that impede their families’ economic security.

Rowe-Finkbeiner was less surprised by the scary statistics that surround modern motherhood in the United States, having written The F Word: Feminism in Jeopardy–Women, Politics, and the Future in 2004. She also had experienced firsthand some of the difficulties moms face, such as the need for health care, parental leave, and other support following a child’s birth.

The pair tapped their knowledge and experience to move mothers to make social, political, and cultural change. Via house parties, where people view a documentary version of The Motherhood Manifesto, and e-mail “outreaches” that can be passed along easily to other potential supporters, MomsRising.org built a membership base that has grown to more than 140,000 people.

They also gathered as allies 85 national and state organizations: faith groups, child advocacy groups, unions, health care organizations, parenting groups, family advocacy groups, women’s organizations, and mothers’ organizations.

Members take actions called for in one or more e-mail messages each week. Sometimes this involves signing a petition to support a piece of legislation, such as the Healthy Families Act, the Fair Pay Restoration Act, or the Breastfeeding Promotion Act. Other times it involves actually visit­ing a congressperson’s local office or even participating in a campaign like the popular “Power of ONEsie” display of decorated baby onesies in front of the Washington state capitol to promote paid family leave.

Members also send memorable e-cards to their friends to encourage them to join the group and read and comment on the website’s blogs. These moms have shared numerous stories of job loss and demotions imposed on them when they needed, for example, a less rigid work schedule, acceptance of pregnancy on the job, the same competitive wage others in comparable positions were receiving, or breast-feeding support, such as privacy to pump milk for a newborn. Their stories usually end with a plea for help in changing the American workplace to embrace the less tangible needs of mothers (and every human being) for connecting, caring, reciprocity, and love.

Devising workable policies in service of this aim lies at the heart of the MomsRising platform. Few Americans would be anything but grateful if the organizations in which they labor could help them realize synergy between their work and nonwork lives.

For those who find this mission compelling and urgent, MomsRising.org offers the opportunity to amplify their voices and engage in the nation’s political dialogue. A mom at home can become a naptime activist; a mom at work can become a lunchtime activist. Their conversation in the MomsRising virtual kitchen has new power to move their issues and those of their families from the back burner to the front–even if a mother is still a little tired.

Nanette Fondas is on the executive team of MomsRising.org. She has written on the economics and sociology of work, family, and management, and has taught at Harvard, Duke, and the University of California, Berkeley. Reprinted from Tikkun(July-Aug. 2008), a magazine of politics, spirituality, and culture; www.tikkun.org.

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