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Power in a movement

Enough talk, already. It's time for the mothers' movement to get organized -- or risk missing our window of opportunity.

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

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It was a typical Friday morning (as typical as anything gets around here, anyway), and I was preoccupied with my travel plans -- in a few hours, I was heading to Smithtown, NY for the National Association of Mothers Centers Mothers '08 Conference (April 4-6). In the bustle of getting the kids fed and off to school, I realized I hadn't mentioned to my soon-to-be-11-year-old son that I would be away for the weekend, or that I would be gone when he came home that afternoon. The boy has a long memory for slights, and takes particular delight in tormenting me about my maternal shortcomings: Hey mom, don't forget to sign my permission slip. Like when you FORGOT TO TELL ME you were going out of town for THREE WHOLE DAYS.

Of course, I felt absolutely rotten about leaving him out of the loop regarding my travel schedule. (I may be a thoughtless mother, but I'm not unfeeling.) The truth is that showing up for out-of-town meetings and conferences to talk about the political grounding and future of the mothers' movement has become -- well, not a grind, exactly, but definitely a reflexive routine, sort of like flossing my teeth before bedtime. Let me be clear: I look forward to these events for the opportunity to meet up with old friends and colleagues and connect with new ones -- I really do. And until quite recently, there was nothing I relished more than the prospect of getting together with a bunch of like-minded women (and whenever possible, a few feminist men) to brainstorm about the potential of the mothers' movement and how to mobilize mothers for change.

Reader, I must tell you that a change has come over me. I'm no longer satisfied with writing and talking about the mothers' movement and the values and policy priorities of a caring society (and what it will take to move the United States in that direction). I'm tired of dissecting the relationship between motherhood ideology, conflicts in feminism, and opportunities and barriers to organizing mothers for political action -- so tired of it that just writing this sentence makes my head hurt. I, for one, am ready to move on to the next phase. I want to get the job done. And I have some ideas about how we can get started.

| thinking beyond ourselves

The community of stakeholders in the mothers' movement is larger and more diverse than is usually evident at the motherhood conferences I've attended over the years, and the leadership team at the National Association of Mothers' Centers deserves special credit for inviting participants from a wider circle of support and advocacy organizations to the Mothers '08 Conference. (Full disclosure: the Mothers Movement Online was an event partner, and I worked with the NAMC outreach team early in the conference planning process.) Conspicuously absent from the mix were Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner of MomsRising.org. In keeping with their efforts to position MomsRising as the only game in town for activist mamas, Blades and Rowe-Finkbeiner seem to have a no-show policy for events that promote community-building and informal communication among leaders and members of aligned organizations -- which, in my mind, raises reasonable doubts about the MomsRising team's commitment to supporting the development of a broader, fully collaborative movement. (Emily McKhann, a MomsRising volunteer leader from New York state and co-founder of The Motherhood networking site, provided an upbeat overview of MomRising's accomplishments. But it would be a friendly gesture -- as well as an act of good faith -- if Blades and Rowe-Finkbeiner ventured out to mingle with the crowd once in awhile.)

The weekend's program was further marred by some unfortunate oversights -- clearly unintentional, but disappointing nonetheless -- on the part of conference organizers. For example, a lunchtime showcase of national mothers' organizations (you can read my remarks here) included a presentation by Cathy Myers of the Family and Home Network -- a group that has been largely inactive since suspending publication of its monthly journal, Welcome Home, in 2004 -- while a presentation on the continuing work of the National Organization for Women's Mothers and Caregivers Economic Rights Committee -- the project responsible for launching a 2007 action generating more public comments in defense of preserving and expanding the Family & Medical Leave Act than any other organization present -- was mysteriously excluded from the line-up. While I accept the explanation that the omission was due to a miscommunication, I suspect that "thinking beyond ourselves and beyond today"-- the tagline for the Mothers '08 conference -- involves thinking about which voices and agendas are amplified (or not) at our collective events. Good intentions aside, the sad reality is that national conferences and inter-organizational meetings are notoriously poor forums for promoting inclusion and diversity, particularly when the sponsoring organization has a priority and obligation to meet the support and service needs of its members.

The weekend offered a range of creative and action-oriented programming, including a rabble-rousing keynote by Ellen Bravo and a half-day, professionally-facilitated roundtable discussion with leaders of national mothers' organizations. Looking back on previous motherhood conferences and events -- starting with the 2001 Mothers & More National Conference, where Kristin Maschka and I presented one of the first mother-centric advocacy workshops on work-life policy, and the 2002 Symposium on Maternal Feminism at Barnard College (which was particularly memorable for several panelists' open hostility toward actual feminists) -- there's little doubt that the mothers' movement, and many of the organizations affiliated with it, have come a long way in a very short time. As new and existing mothers' advocacy groups become more specialized in their services and message delivery -- and more amenable to working together for change -- the outlook for productive collaboration is resolutely hopeful.

Despite these promising developments, I found it difficult to sustain my optimism about the Mothers '08 conference as a groundbreaking event. The nagging question was whether organizational leaders would use the conference as an opportunity to improve the movement's signal-to-noise ratio by balancing the volume of talk with a transition toward pragmatic change work, or whether the mothers' movement -- like the progressive movement overall -- would stay stuck in the process of endlessly elaborating on the nature of the problem, with no realistic action plan in sight.

next page:
the tension between talk and action

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