In 2002, you organized a one-day Symposium on Maternal Feminism
in NYC, which was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the
founding of NOW. Women’s historians generally view “maternalism”—
women’s social activism to improve the welfare children and
families— and “feminism”— women’s
political activism to secure equal rights— as separate, and
sometimes conflicting, strains of women’s political engagement.
How do you see these disparate philosophies blending in the contemporary
movement to advance the status of mothers?
key objective of the symposium on maternal feminism was to create
a forum for mothers to reflect upon and learn from the lessons of
history, as we embark on a 21st century movement to advance the
status of mothers. We wanted to help minimize the chances of a maternalist/feminist
divide in the contemporary motherhood/mothers’ movement by
recalling the history of the women’s movement.
Mothers were a vital
part of the early women’s movement and many “maternalists”
worked side by side with "equal rights feminists." As
we noted in the Call to a Motherhood Movement, equal rights
for women and support for nurturing and for women who wish to be
nurturerers need not be at odds. Our goal is to help build a 21st
century motherhood/mothers’ movement that will “move
us all forward, building on the gains of the women’s movement
to extend equal rights to mothers and put mothers’ concerns
about children and nurturing at the top of the national agenda.”
A number of feminist historians have argued that the maternalist
reform agenda during the late 19th and early 20th century had negative
consequences for mothers who were already disadvantaged by social
conditions, in that policy solutions endorsed by maternalist social
reformers served to institutionalize middle-class ideals about women’s
appropriate roles in the family and in society. Several scholars
have suggested that the well-being of working class and immigrant
mothers, and mothers of color, was actually reduced by some of the
public policies and cultural attitudes promoted by maternalist reformers.
How will a new agenda for maternal/feminist activism avoid similar
As a Black woman, I am keenly aware of the racial and class limitations
of the maternalist reform movements, as well as the equal rights
movement, for that matter. That is why we have taken such pains
-- and will continue to work hard— to build a diverse Mothers’
Council and reach out to and listen to the voices of a wide variety
of mothers’ groups across the country.
It is also one reason
why we are undertaking a national study of the attitudes, values,
concerns, and needs of mothers in the United States. This comprehensive
study will combine focus groups with mothers throughout the country
and in-depth telephone interviews with a nationally representative
sample of mothers.
We will pay particular
attention to the needs and concerns of mothers of color, single
mothers, and mothers in immigrant, low income, and working poor
families. This study will broaden and deepen our collective understanding
of mothers’ priorities and concerns to help identify community
initiatives, and private and public policies that would best address
the diversity of needs of mothers across the socioeconomic spectrum.
stated that our society needs to realign so that the values of “the
mother world”— care, connection and nurturing—
are given greater priority. In practice, what would this look like?
As things now stand, our societal priorities are determined almost
exclusively by the forces of what sociologist Robert Bellah calls
the “money world”— work, immediate gratification,
speed, the profit motive, self-interest, and materialism. These
are the forces telling us and our children who we are and what matters
most in life— getting good grades to get good jobs to work
harder and harder to buy more and more things.
This is a culture which
increasingly treats people as means to ends rather than ends in
and of themselves. It is a shallow “work and consume”
culture in which we spend more and more time as workers and consumers
and less and less time as mothers, fathers, family members, neighbors,
and citizens. We and our children are working harder, getting less
sleep, reserving less time for leisure and family and civic life.
We have to find ways
to redefine success so that it does not mean how hard we work, how
much money we have, and how much we can buy. It must mean that we
use the money we have to take better care of ourselves, our children,
our families, our elders, and our neighbors, including the people
of our forgotten urban and rural communities who need our help.
A recalibration of the
values of the money world and the mother world would mean that,
as a society, we would work to live instead of live to work. To
begin with, it would mean that we would be less rushed, that our
personal and family lives would not be crowded into increasingly
smaller and smaller spaces in our days. It would mean, for example,
much more time for the hard work of forging and nurturing relationships,
passing on traditions, and teaching our children the values that
will help them be good friends and neighbors, good mothers and fathers.
It would mean that we had rearranged the priorities of our society
to treat people as ends in themselves, not as means or instruments
to other more important ends.
Do you believe only mothers have an inherent capacity to
foster human growth through relationship and a shared ethic of care,
or do you imagine that this is something everyone in our society
should be actively involved in?
Ideally, everyone in society should be actively involved in fostering
human growth and development. We believe that mothers are important
voices in favor of a recalibration of the values of our society
because our work as mothers helps us see and understand in concrete
ways every day what it takes to help children flourish and what
it takes to nourish and develop human relationships.
Are you calling for a return of mothers in the paid workforce
to the traditional role of unpaid caregiving in the home?
I have been in the paid
workforce, I have worked at home full time with my children, I have
worked in the paid work force from home. I believe that mothers
should be free to make their own decisions about whether to stay
at home to care for their children or enter or stay in the paid
We must, however, find
concrete ways to honor and support mothers and enable mothers—
as well as fathers— to spend more time on the vital work of
caring for and nurturing children.
Institute for American Values has a reputation for taking a conservative
line on family issues. Sociologist Scott Coltrane, who studies fatherhood
issues, has described the Institute’s founder, David Blakenhorn,
as a “defender of traditional fatherhood” who presents
“a clear picture of men’s limited capacity for direct
care, and not incidentally, their inherent suitability for leadership”
as the head of the family. This position conflicts with feminist
ideals for equality within marriage, since it implies the appropriateness
of male/dominant and female/subordinate roles within married couples
and a gendered division of caring labor. Is the Institute’s
ideology about fatherhood reflected in your conceptualization of
a motherhood movement?
Coltrane is wrong. I know that David Blankenhorn believes in equality
The Call to a Motherhood
Movement expressly called for a movement “founded on
principles of equal dignity, regard, and responsibility between
men and women, mothers and fathers.” In any case, happily,
the Institute does not require those associated with it to think
in the same way or reach any particular conclusions. We think for
ourselves, and the Motherhood Project and the Mothers’ Council
develop their positions independent of the positions of other Institute
The Institute also has a strong pro-marriage agenda. Maggie
Gallagher, author of The Case for Marriage and an Institute
associate, was interviewed for a recent report on the mothers’
movement for the Congressional Quarterly Researcher (April
3, 2003). Gallagher was quoted as saying “the ‘gratitude’
wives feel when their husbands’ earnings permit them to stay
a home is a crucial ingredient in the glue that keeps couples together
and produces strong families”. I was personally offended by
the tone of Gallagher’s remarks, which I interpreted as conservative
backlash against feminist attitudes about equality in marriage and
the legitimacy of diverse family forms. In any case, the reciprocal
‘gratitude’ a husband feels for his wife’s contribution
of unpaid care work would presumably have an equally adhesive quality.
Is there any aspect of the Institute’s pro-marriage agenda
that informs the work of the Motherhood Project/Mother’s Council?
How do the needs and rights of single parent women and their children
fit into the Motherhood Project/Mother’s Council’s social agenda?
Institute affiliates are not required to agree with each other,
and in this case, I do not concur with Ms. Gallagher.
The Motherhood Project
and the Mothers’ Council develop positions for themselves,
independent of the positions taken by other Institute projects.
I personally happen to
believe (and a growing body of evidence supports the view) that
strong, healthy marriages are good for children. But I am intent
on sparking a mothers’ renaissance for all mothers. I am therefore
committed to making sure that the voices and concerns of single
mothers are included in all aspects of the work of the Project and
What is the next step for your organization? What do you
hope to accomplish, and do you have a time frame?
next major step is a national study of the attitudes, values, concerns,
and needs of mothers.
This comprehensive original
research study will enable us to listen to the voices of mothers,
who are, as author Naomi Wolf has put it, the “frontline”
workers for children. This study will provide much-needed insights
on the state of mind of mothers and the state of motherhood in the
United States today, and it will help inform the development of
both the mothers’ and the motherhood movements.
A major product of this
initiative will be a report to the nation which will include a discussion
guide to help deepen the national conversation and debate about
mothers, mothering, and motherhood. The report and discussion guide
will be widely disseminated and used to inform and inspire local
and national action aimed at increasing support for mothers and
the vital work that mothers do.
Current plans call for
the report to be released in 2005.
there are mothers who are interested in supporting your current
projects or future ones, how can they become involved?
EA: Mothers are welcome
to contact us directly through our web site www.watchoutforchildren.org.
MMO : June 2003