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'Mom-tivists': Political Organizing and Motherhood Identity

Updated: Feb 19, 2021

Here are six stories exploring the complexities of political organizing around motherhood identities

Reporting for The Washington Post, Sarah Kaplan writes that female climate scientists are turning to mothers as they attempt to motivate the broader public to address climate change. A group of six climate scientists who are mothers have joined together to form Science Moms, a group dedicated to empowering moms to act against climate change. Putting money toward maternal activism is seen as a sound investment--there is a long track record of mother-focused activism groups, and Science Moms plans to become part of this tradition, using the likelihood of a precarious future for their children to spur mothers to action. While any activism in the arena of climate change is desperately needed, it is curious to me that appealing to some sort of maternal instinct is necessary to force people to care about an impending ecological and human disaster.


In The Activist History Review, Mara Caelin reflects on her involvement with Moms Demand Action, coupling her personal experience with insights about the broader political and racial dynamics of maternal activism. She points out the inherent contradictions in activism undertaken under the umbrella of motherhood, as it both claims to be universal while advancing tactics and goals specific to the mothers empowered within each organization. Caelin highlights the implications of this tension by looking at the strategies of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a spiritual predecessor to Moms Demand Action. MADD, while appealing to the universality of motherhood, pursued their agenda in a way that relied upon increased policing of drunk driving, policing that would target and endanger communities of color. With this example, Caelin illustrates the need for women of color to be in positions of authority as ‘mothers’ organize around issue areas where Black and brown communities are particularly vulnerable.


Bitch Media’s Marianne Dhenin details the history of assumptions that underpin motherhood-organizing and the influence of race in shaping the image of a mom-activist. The centrality of mothers to the morality of a society dates back to America’s early Puritans, with this image of morally ‘pure’ mothers being inextricably linked with whiteness. These white moms were elevated as activists as early as the 19th century, granted positions of prominence in temperance and abolitionist movements. In contrast, Black mothers grappled with being denied the right to mother and existed without the presumption of 'morality' that white women enjoyed. This history has modern consequences, as predominantly white mother-centric activist groups benefit from fitting within long-held preconceptions of motherhood, attracting more attention and resources than groups run by mothers of color.


Amanda Taub’s article was published in The New York Times in the immediate aftermath of the Portland Black Lives Matter protests, looking at the international tradition that predated Portland’s “Wall of Moms.” She highlights other nations--namely South Africa, Sri Lanka, Argentina, and Armenia--where moms have been central to political protests. In Armenia, mothers brought children in carriages to protests, able to protect themselves with a non-threatening appearance. This protection was not available to Black women in South Africa--or America--as in both anti-apartheid and BLM protests, white moms were able to depend upon the protection of white womanhood as they demonstrated in public. The Portland protests, by exposing police abuses, draws on an Argentinian activist history while simultaneously illustrating the systemic racism endemic to perceptions of protesting. The violence used against these white moms attracted more public outrage, becoming part of a larger dynamic where the concerns of white moms are treated with more seriousness by dominant power structures than their less privileged counterparts


Lola Fadulu documents in The Washington Post the activist efforts of Black mothers whose sons had been killed by police, appearing at a March on Washington to bring attention to the police violence that has transformed their lives. She includes the stories of multiple mothers and their sons, including the lack of accountability for the officers responsible for their sons’ deaths. The mothers express both pain and frustration to Fadulu, enraged by the impunity of the police and the lack of progress made in the United States in efforts to prevent police brutality.


NBC News presents a history of the formation of the Latinx-helmed group the Mothers of East LA (MELA), arising in the context of a decades-long marginalization and the police harassment of the LA Latinx community. When the state government proposed building another prison in East LA, Latinx mothers organized against a project that would devalue their neighborhoods, mark the area as inherently ‘criminal’, and bolster police surveillance efforts. MELA staged weekly marches on the California state capitol, working for over a decade to ensure the prison was not built. These mothers were able to generate grassroots involvement by relying upon the trust their communities had in them and drawing upon the Argentinian example of maternal organizing. Beyond preventing the construction of a single prison, MELA had a lasting impact on the region, with East LA remaining an epicenter of Latinx activism.


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