The Next Phase of Feminism

The efforts of the folks at Hallmark notwithstanding, Mother's Day has deeply political, even radical, roots.

The holiday was established in the U.S. in the aftermath of the Civil War by Julia Ward Howe, the 19th-century social activist who worked for abolition, women's rights and prison reform, among other causes. Howe envisioned Mother's Day as a day for women to commit themselves to working for peace; according to juliawardhowe.org, a website devoted to Howe's work, on this day, women "would… convene as mothers, keeping in mind the duty of protecting their children."

Over generations, mothers have helped shape and lead significant social and political movements: the U.S. temperance campaign, women's suffrage, the abolition movement, anti-violence and anti-war efforts. That's the tradition in which MomsRising is working. "What people are seeing in MomsRising is the next phase of feminism, focused on families, with mothers in the lead," said Melanie DeSilva, executive director of MotherWoman, the parent organization, if you will, of the Pioneer Valley chapter of MomsRising.

Founded three years ago, MomsRising is a national non-profit that describes its mission as "build[ing] a family-friendly America." Members (the group claims 150,000) and supporters organize, largely online (at http://www.momsrising.org), to advocate for cultural and policy changes to support families. Among its priorities are flexible work and parental leave policies, quality childcare and healthcare for kids, and wage equity. The group was founded by Joan Blades—who also co-founded the progressive organizing group MoveOn.org—and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner.

Members of the Pioneer Valley MomsRising chapter say theirs is one of just two MomsRising locals in the country; like MoveOn, MomsRising exists largely in cyberspace, and it doesn't actively work to establish local chapters. (The Advocate made several attempts to interview a representative from the national MomsRising, but the group's press contact didn't follow through on those requests.)

Victoria Munroe, one of the local founders, said she and several friends were inspired to start the group after seeing a screening of "The Motherhood Manifesto," a documentary based on the book of the same name, written by Blades and Rowe-Finkbeiner. A number of the people in the new group were already active in MotherWoman, which incorporated MomsRising as one of its programs.

While it supports the agenda set by the national MomsRising, the Pioneer Valley chapter soon found a local issue to take on: the loss of midwifery services at Cooley-Dickinson Hospital's childbirth center. Previously, only one of the obstetrical practices connected to CDH offered women the option of being attended by midwives in the delivery room. Then, in 2007, that practice, citing financial reasons, decided to no longer offer midwife-attended birth services.

The change created a stir in the upper Valley, where midwives—with their low rates of medical interventions and reputation for personal attention—are a popular choice for many pregnant women. Led by MomsRising, a group of women began meeting to discuss how to fill the void. They also contacted CDH officials to express their concerns, and, at the request of the hospital, organized focus groups to help determine what kinds of services local families wanted, Munroe said. With that input, CDH decided to establish its own midwifery center, which provides pregnancy and post-partum care as well as routine gynecological care.

The midwifery center was a coup for MomsRising, demonstrating the new group's ability to organize and to have significant influence in its community. "It was nice to be heard," said Munroe, who notes that the project helped MomsRising establish a good working relationship with CDH that carries over into its Baby-Friendly Hospital campaign (see main story).

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Locally, MomsRising is the "political arm" of MotherWoman, an Amherst group that provides support programs for moms. MotherWoman is perhaps best known for its innovative post-partum support programs, including weekly facilitated groups for new moms who are experiencing emotional difficulties. The only provider of these services in the region—participants come from around western and central Mass. as well as from neighboring states— MotherWoman is now working to expand postpartum programs in the area.

MotherWoman also offers drop-in groups where new mothers can turn to each other for support. MotherWoman's program director, Annette Cycon, said she and friend Gabrielli LaChiara founded the group after realizing how stressful and isolating new motherhood can be in our society.

"Like everyone else, parenting really brought us to our knees," Cycon recalled recently at a meeting at MotherWoman's office in downtown Amherst. Despite her professional training as a social worker and family therapist, she said, she was unprepared for the emotional turbulence of being a new parent. In addition to the profound love and satisfaction she felt, she said, she found herself grappling with feelings of rage and grief, financial and marital stress—things "that I had not heard spoken of." Like the women's consciousness-raising groups of the '70s, MotherWoman's groups provide a place where moms can talk about these intense feelings and find support from others in the same position. Sitting in these groups, Cycon said, mothers realize "we're not alone. We're not crazy. This is normal."

That validation and support, she added, is especially important in today's mobile, fractured society, where many parents don't have the extended families and community support their grandparents' generation enjoyed. "We can get an enormous amount of strength sitting in a circle together and telling our stories," Cycon said.

The activist work of MomsRising was a logical extension of MotherWoman's mission, said DeSilva. After all, she noted, so much of the stress felt by mothers comes directly from the lack of policies that support families. Locally, MomsRising has worked on legislation to protect women's right to breastfeed in public; right now, the group is part of a coalition pushing for a state law that would mandate paid sick leave for workers. With each campaign, the group builds connections with other activist groups and with policy-makers on Beacon Hill.

"We are ground breaking out here," DeSilva said proudly. While Munroe estimates that MomsRising has only about a half-dozen core members, it has a large network of allies that support its work. MotherWoman gets funding from the Women's Fund of Western Mass. and the Community Foundation, and last year was able to hire Marianne Bullock as a part-time coordinator for its MomsRising program. The group has come a long way, DeSilva said, from the days when board members held a tag sale to raise enough money to pay her salary.

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To DeSilva, the work done by MomsRising and other parent-activist groups represents the natural next step of the feminist movement.

In the 1970s, she said, the women's movement was, to a large degree, focused "on women's right not to have kids," with an emphasis on issues like abortion rights and contraception, as well as more general issues of equity in the workplace. While that was necessary at the time, DeSilva said, "Now it's time to focus on what happens when people do decide to have children."

That means creating policies that support families and allow parents to balance work and kids in healthy way: affordable childcare, quality healthcare, flexible job schedules. "The workplace hasn't changed enough to meet the needs of women, particularly mothers—and fathers, but mothers have always gotten the brunt of it," DeSilva said.

Munroe has been active in feminist causes her entire life. "Once I became a mother, I realized there was a whole other set of issues with parents and families," she said. "I was surprised, having done a lot of political work, how much I wanted to stay home and bake cookies—and almost felt like I shouldn't want to. … But I realized it's all about choice. All the work of feminism is about women having choices."

"When I had a child, I realized how much mothering is a feminist issue," said Bullock, the MomsRising coordinator, who has a 2-year-old. "I think of that constantly in raising my daughter. This is such an important time in her life, and how I present things to her about gender roles, race, sexuality, will shape how she sees all this."

MomsRising meets the fourth Thursday of every month at 7:30 p.m. at the MotherWoman office, 96 North Pleasant St., Amherst. For more information about MomsRising of the Pioneer Valley or MotherWoman's other programs, visit http://www.motherwoman.org or call (413) 253-8990.

Author: Maureen Turner

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