By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Motherhood and the power for good
6663013da6c27a8615c5ccd1bec4c61bb69fd1ff0837dcfcbe1c3487a6fc9146
Missouri History Museum, St. Louis - photo by Marsha Maxwell
One of the most important moments in U.S. history depended on a son listening to his mother when she told him to be a good boy.

The Tennessee Legislature was debating the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and if they voted yes, Tennessee would become the 36th and deciding state to ratify the amendment giving women the right to vote in the United States.

The debate was bitter, but representative Harry T. Burn cast the tiebreaking vote to approve the amendment after he received a letter from his mother that said, Hurrah for suffrage, and dont forget to be a good boy, as reported in the Nashville Tennessean.

Burn had intended to vote against women's suffrage, but he changed his mind because, he said, "a good boy always does what his mother asks him to do."

Even today, everybody cares about moms," said Debbie Weir, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "People dont want to disappoint their mothers. They want their moms to be proud."

MADD is one of the most important and successful mother-centered advocacy groups and has provided a blueprint for subsequent causes, according to Cynthia Stavrianos, author of the book The Political Uses of Motherhood in America.

Research by Stavrianos and other scholars shows that mothers have the power to shape society, not just by influencing their family members at home, but by advocating for good causes in their neighborhoods, in the media and in the halls of city, state and national government.

The importance of mothers in society has enabled them to get the attention of the media and government officials, Stavrianos said. When women are seen as speaking with the moral authority of mothers, that message carries more weight.

Mom advocacy in history

Mothers have been seen as influential in society throughout American history, according to Jill Greenlee, author of the book The Political Consequences of Motherhood. Americans in the Revolutionary War era talked about Republican Motherhood and believed it was a mothers duty to raise patriotic citizens. In the Progressive Era, mothers advocated to clean up the food supply, resulting in the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act that led to the creation of the FDA.

Mothers active in the suffrage movement presented womens voting rights as a necessary tool for mothers to protect their children and their homes, according to Stavrianos. Mothers were also active in the temperance movement, emphasizing the need to protect the family from the harmful effects of alcohol, such as abuse and poverty. Motherhood was a big talking point in that movement, said Steven Greene, co-author of the book The Politics of Parenthood with Laurel Elder.

Framing an issue as a mothers issue and a matter of protecting the family can help get attention and approval in the political sphere, according to Stavrianos. How can you be against a mom simply protecting her child or speaking out on behalf of all children? she said. That helps to get issues political traction.

Mothers getting MADD

Candace Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, later called Mothers Against Drunk Driving, in 1980 when her 13-year-old daughter Cari was killed by a repeat drunk driving offender. MADDs early success depended largely on Lightner, who shared her personal story in news interviews and organized other bereaved mothers and family members to advocate for tougher drunk driving laws. The group got the legal drinking age raised from 18 to 21 in 1984.

What was key for her was being a sympathetic face, a grieving mom, Stavrianos said. In many ways, MADD followed in the footsteps of previous mother movements that emphasized how excessive alcohol consumption harms the family.

MADDs greatest achievement is that MADD has put a human face and a human voice on statistics, said Weir. Its really providing victims the opportunity to use their voice, and it helps with their healing process.

When you have a mom that talks about their pain, their grief, living a life now without their child, people just sit up a little bit straighter, and they really want to listen, Weir said. That kind of power really does make a difference.

Weir is proud of the way MADD enables bereaved family members to work through their grief and also use their experience to advocate for change on an important issue. One of the most important recent developments for the organization is adding a free, 24-hour victim help line, 877-MADD-HELP, which provides counseling services for those affected by drunk driving.

MADD has transcended its title, according to senior Vice President Amy George. The organization now includes not just mothers, but fathers, grandparents and many others who see the need to address the issue of drunk driving. Passion and compassion are contagious, George said. When people really believe in a cause and understand that they are making significant change thats contagious.

Contemporary causes

Mother-focused organizations are still especially effective when they speak out about protecting children and families. Using motherhood as a frame lends itself to talking about protecting and caring for children, Stavrianos said. Contemporary mom-focused advocacy groups often follow in their foremothers footsteps by advocating for the rights and well-being of women and children, along with clean air, food and water.

Chrysula Winegar, who is involved with several international anti-poverty organizations, including Global Moms Challenge, has gotten to know women around the world through her advocacy and through social media. She has found that despite differences in their circumstances, women share common concerns.

We care about making sure our kids are healthy, and that they have every opportunity for education, learning and health. We care about safe societies, and we care about respectful treatment of women and girls, she said.

Gretchen Dahlkemper, national field manager for Moms Clean Air Force, has found that talking about children is an effective way to frame environmental issues. Motherhood, or parenthood in general, is a really powerful motivator. Protecting your children is something everybody can understand and identify with, she said.

Dahlkemper has discovered that mothers can be very effective speaking both in public hearings and one-on-one with public officials about issues affecting families. One of the most enjoyable parts of her job is taking newer members of the organization to meet with their elected representatives.

I think one of the biggest issues in politics these days is that people dont feel connected to the people who are in office anymore. A lot of people dont know they can talk to their elected officials. They feel that theyre inaccessible, and that theyre not going to listen. After positive experiences reaching out to officeholders, many mothers gain a sense of empowerment, Dahlkemper said.

Moms reaching out to elected officials is also an important strategy for MomsRising, an organization advocating for parental leave, paid sick days, pay equity, access to affordable child care and other policies designed to support the 75 percent of mothers who are in the labor force.

MomsRising started in 2006 with a handful of members but now has more than a million members, according to Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, one of the organizations founders.

MomsRising uses layer cake organizing so members can fit advocacy into their busy schedules. Members choose various ways to get involved, depending on how much time they have. Actions could be as simple as sharing a social media message, sending email or filling out an online form to relay their concerns to elected officials. If moms want to get more involved, they meet with elected leaders. They make phone calls. They go to meetings in local areas. They hold events. They are active on a number of different platforms, Rowe-Finkbeiner said.

Rowe-Finkbeiner cites child care policy reforms, equal pay legislation, healthier school lunches and protecting Medicaid as MomsRising success stories.

The voices of moms are way more powerful than we ever imagined, Rowe-Finkbeiner said.

People think that their voice and their story doesnt matter. It absolutely does. We have the track record to show that when moms get engaged, it has a huge impact.

Not just for moms

All of the mom organizers agreed that fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, concerned neighbors and others can also be important advocates for children and families.

Its less about the literal mother and more about how everybody is joining together to achieve the mission, George said.

Weve had men who say, Im a proud MADD mom, Weir added.

MomsRising is for moms, and for everyone who has ever had a mom, Rowe-Finkbeiner said. Moms unite us.