Try this exercise: What’s the last thing your mother said to you?
If you can’t remember, you’ve got company: I failed that exercise myself. The power of a mother’s voice is undeniable; it comes from a place so deep and ancient that the actual words she speaks are often overlooked, fogged over by a misty emotional aura. Politicians often invoke images of their own mothers, or the mothers of their children, to add to the mythmaking about their own journeys to power or to simply score political points. Pollsters cite the “soccer mom” demographic in elections, as if this were a real group with real positions on issues (it isn’t).
As a mother with progressive politics, I frequently succumb to the temptation to assume that other moms share my values, my passions, my causes. But every time I do, I find myself humbled by the complexities of reality. In public debates over policy issues that increasingly impact women and children, I’ve found that it is important to tune our eardrums to the right frequency for actually hearing what mothers think. Once the misty emotional aura dissipates, mothers’ voices are usually among the most calm, sane and logical ones we will read or hear on any issue. And their opinions, like those of any other group, are diverse and unpredictable.
Take gun control. I would surmise that mothers whose children have been murdered by gun violence would scream out for very strict gun control laws. I, for one, would gleefully flip a switch right now if it would magically disable every firearm on Earth. I’d like to believe that all mothers think as I do. But, like the old Gershwin song says, it ain’t necessarily so. Individual mothers have varying things to say on the subject.
Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton–the mother of Hadiya Pendleton, who was murdered in a Chicago park just days after performing at Obama’s second inauguration—said recently that she does support “common sense measures” to control gun violence. “Something’s wrong with the way the laws are structured, perhaps,” she said in a press conference in March at the White House Easter Egg roll. Cowley-Pendleton is no political prop for gun-control advocates. She sounds as dispassionate, measured, and self-controlled as the president himself. I don’t know how she maintains such composure as she grieves for her daughter, but I do know that she is likely to win over more voters to gun control with her sanity than I would with my global-firearms-off-switch idea.
Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, the teen slain in February 2012 says Trayvon’s killer is using Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law to try to escape accountability for the killing. Fulton said in an interview recently that she wants “some type of remedy…to try to prevent this from reoccurring.” In three sets of interviews, Fulton does not go into detail as to what remedy that might be. It is likely that she is well aware of the heavy toll that the enforcement of gun laws can take on black communities. Though it hasn’t been studied, community activists in cities like Chicago and Oakland say that more black youth than white gun owners wind up being incarcerated whenever new gun control laws are passed. Whether this is a factor for Fulton or not, it is clear she prefers to focus the public’s attention on bringing her son’s killer to justice rather than calling for any sweeping change in the law. I respect and support her for speaking out, although I don’t share her perspective.
When mothers act collectively, their power becomes concentrated and their message distilled to unmistakable clarity. At least two groups have emerged as collective voices for mothers for gun control laws following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT in December: Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America is the major one. Their list of demands is short and simple, and their organizing follows the model of another effective older collective lobbying voice: Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Translating the grief of losing a child into an organized call for public policy change seems almost alchemically difficult; yet these moms pulled it off within a month of the shooting, mounting a legislative campaign that for the first time posed a true threat to the powerful gun lobby.
Which brings us to Mother’s Day: another monument to the sanity and toughness of American moms. First proposed in 1870 via an impassioned public proclamation by early feminist leader Julia Ward Howe, Mother’s Day was intended to be a day for mothers to pour into the streets to agitate for an end to war. For a long time I claimed to know the origin of Mother’s Day and cited Howe as its Founding Mother. I was wrong. Howe’s proclamation didn’t actually prompt the nation to begin observing Mothers’ Day. When Howe’s idea for a peace-activists’ holiday failed to take hold, Anna Jarvis took up the cause in memory of her own mother, who had founded Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in five cities to improve sanitary and health conditions and who had worked to reunite families after the Civil War. In 1914, following years of campaigning, Jarvis’ version of Mother’s Day was made a national observance by President Wilson, and we celebrate it on the second Sunday in May to this day.
But, unlike Howe’s passionate poetry, Jarvis’ gritty West Virginia version of the holiday brooked no sentimentality. She wanted a Mothers’ Day that was as solemn, quiet and honorable as the work her mother did to restore normalcy to war-ravaged cities. Instead, to her horror, people began sending their mothers greeting cards and flowers instead of actually visiting their mothers and working toward peace for Mothers’ Day. Though Jarvis never had children of her own, her ferocity about Mothers’ Day reveals a deep understanding of the ferocity of motherly love and the need for mothers’ voices to be heard.
Whether speaking alone, writing powerful poetry, or speaking collectively through lobbying for public policy changes, mothers deserve to be part of the record as we contemplate how to respond to world events. They play a role in their childrens’ lives, yes; but they are not blank cardboard cutouts with nurturing expressions and no political awareness. Public policies like immigration, war, gun control, and public safety laws help to carve the silhouettes of mothers’ lives. That should be enough to make us heed their actual words on the issues that affect them and their families.
Photo by Yuri Levchenko, licensed under a Attribution 2.0 Generic license.