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An interview with Enola Aird

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MMO: 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?

EA: A 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.”

MMO: 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 negative outcomes?

EA: 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.

MMO: You’ve 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?

EA: 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.

MMO: 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?

EA: 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.

MMO: Are you calling for a return of mothers in the paid workforce to the traditional role of unpaid caregiving in the home?

EA: No.

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 work force.

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.

MMO: The 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?

EA: Mr. Coltrane is wrong. I know that David Blankenhorn believes in equality within marriage.

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 initiatives.

MMO: 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?

EA: Again, 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 Council.

MMO: What is the next step for your organization? What do you hope to accomplish, and do you have a time frame?

EA: Our 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.

MMO: If 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

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Related articles on the MMO:

Morality or Equality? Maternal thinking and the social agenda
By Judith Stadtman Tucker

Motherhood and its discontents: The political and ideological grounding
of the 21st century mothers’ movement

Presentation by MMO editor Judith Stadtman Tucker
for the ARM Conference on Mothering and Feminism, Oct 2004. (in .pdf)

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