Marchers play the 'mother' card

As Million Mom weekend nears, history shows that invoking motherhood can be a potent force for change.

They'll come armed with bottles and baby strollers, diaper bags and placards. They're even threatening time-outs. On Mother's Day, an estimated 150,000 women will march on the Capitol for stricter gun-control laws, mustering all the moral authority and emotional punch they can from their formidable status as "Mom."

The Million Mom March is the first movement to invoke motherhood to chasten the powerful US gun lobby and legislators who oppose what these women call "common sense" civilian gun laws. But American women have a long, rich history of successfully rallying under the maternal banner - especially to protect children and create a safer society.

"Motherhood has potent meanings in this culture," says Elaine Tyler May, a historian at the University of Minnesota. "Women are shrewd politically; they will use the power available to them."

Indeed, soon after the Revolutionary War, women used the patriotic idea of "republican motherhood" to justify their need for education - so they could raise sons to be moral citizens.

In the early 19th century, female abolitionists said their "sallying forth" from home to spread antislavery petitions was necessary to protect the chastity of the slaves and their owners.

In the 1880s, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which sent praying women to shut down saloons throughout the Midwest, called itself "organized mother love." Suffragists, meanwhile, likened the women's vote to civic housecleaning - a way to "sweep out the scoundrels."

And in 1915, according to historians, founders of the Women's Peace Party described themselves as "the mother half of humanity."

Today, more than 30 years after Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" and women's "liberation," women are playing the "mother" card, not because they have to, but because they want to and believe it will work.

"What we care about on intimate personal terms has to be translated into the stage of civic life," says historian Nancy Cott of Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

The mighty mother

Mothers can take on controversial issues - often when others can't or won't - because of the unique power and credibility they enjoy as the prime nurturers of human life, say scholars and activists. Mothers' motives are seen as pure, their love as unconditional. Their tactics include an irrepressible mixture of hard work, raw emotion, and earthy humor.

"We do have the mythic power of the mothers who lift 2-ton cars to save their child underneath," says Donna Dees-Thomases, a Springhills, N.J., mother of two and founder of the Million Mom March. "Now we have an 800-pound guerrilla in the form of the gun lobby who is sitting on our children. Who better than the moms to get it off?"

Added to this is a mother's daunting reputation as a fierce defender of her children - a.k.a. "Mommy Bear." "Everyone knows you don't mess around with moms, especially when their children are involved," says Betsy Storm, a mother and Million Mom March organizer in Chicago.

Historically, mothers have gradually extended their activism beyond their own homes and offspring to embrace the well-being of other children and the broader society. "It doesn't have to be your cub," says Lisa Dodson, a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, Mass. "There is a profoundly female protective piece here."

This has led to widespread participation by mothers and other women in movements to promote a society that is more just. Women played a prominent role in the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement, for instance. At the same time, women have campaigned against acts - mainly perpetuated by men - that they see as unwholesome or dangerous. Women have led drives against alcohol consumption and drunk driving, American involvement in wars, and now, what they see as lax gun regulation.

Far from being strictly American, mothers' activism is as universal as singing lullabies. "It's classic maternalism. You can find it in Israel, Russia, Latin America, and Europe," says Linda Gordon, a historian at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who specializes in gender and family.

A small movement of Russian mothers, for example, today condemns the war in Chechnya and calls for refusing the draft. In Israel in the 1980s, an organization called Mothers in Black endured harassment for opposing the occupation of Palestine. Meanwhile, in Argentina, mothers held up photographs of "disappeared" children, demanding that the regime come clean about their abduction and murder by paramilitary groups.

Once moms hit the streets, they can be hard to stop.

Moms vs. Joseph McCarthy

Take the US case of Women Strike for Peace (WSP). In November 1961, as a radioactive cloud from a Russian nuclear test hung over the United States, an estimated 50,000 women, including many middle-class housewives pushing baby carriages, shocked the country by walking out of their kitchens and jobs in more than 60 US cities in a mass, one-day strike.

Organized informally and through women's networks, WSP called for an end to nuclear testing, partly out of a concern that the fallout was contaminating their children's milk.

In Washington, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) subpoenaed 20 of the women in an effort to prove WSP was infiltrated by communists. But the mothers made a circus of the committee probe, hissing, clapping, and shushing their babies in a hearing room packed with hundreds of supporters.

Ultimately, the moms won. HUAC's maternal irreverence deflated the committee and hastened its demise. Two years later, the growing antinuclear movement led President Kennedy to sign a nuclear-test-ban treaty. Finally, in 1997, the National Cancer Institute substantiated the mothers' worries about nuclear fallout and its perpetuation through the food chain.

At Sunday's march, mothers and "honorary" moms will appeal for the licensing of gun owners and gun registration, while warning Congress that if it fails to act it will face a "time out" come the November election. (Gun-control legislation passed by the Senate last year but blocked by the House is currently tied up in conference.)

But in a deeper sense, the marchers will be upholding motherhood against another entrenched cultural icon: the free-standing, gun-bearing American frontiersman.

"It's the essence of maleness in American popular culture: Men use guns," says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of family history at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

Which icon will prevail in the short run is hard to predict.

But one thing is certain, marchers say: Motherhood isn't going anywhere soon.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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