Moms are having a political moment. On Monday, a bipartisan group of Texas state legislators voted a bill out of committee that would raise the legal age to buy certain assault-style weapons to 21. Images from the committee hearing room show grieving Uvalde mothers hugging one another after the vote, flanked by women wearing the signature red shirts of Moms Demand Action, a national organization that says it has nearly 10 million supporters fighting for gun violence prevention laws.
Elsewhere, a very different form of mother-driven activism has become resurgent.
Elsewhere, a very different form of mother-driven activism has become resurgent. It is conservative, largely white, and serves as the public face of the culture wars that now animate much of the GOP. Led by groups like Moms for Liberty, these moms advocate for book bans, fight to curtail the rights of LGBTQ youth and push for widespread restrictions on what public schools can teach about race, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
As we celebrate and honor moms this Mother’s Day, I’ve been grappling with how to make sense of why, in 2023, the identity of “mother” remains so central to our politics. There are benefits to grounding activism in this identity, but there are also risks, especially when motherhood is evoked in ways that advance outdated tropes and impede justice. What does an inclusive, contemporary playbook for motherhood activism look like?
Developing such a vision is a fraught endeavor. The political identity of “mom” remains powerful because it taps into something nearly universal: the intense love and protectiveness that we feel for our children. At the same time, it is an identity that has routinely been weaponized in defense of an unjust status quo.
As historians Michelle Nickerson and Lisa McGirr told me on my podcast, there are striking parallels between Moms for Liberty and the conservative, anti-communist suburban warriors of the 1950s and 1960s who railed against “progressive education” and fought efforts to integrate schools. Moms for Liberty’s rhetoric is also eerily reminiscent of that deployed by anti-LGBTQ activist Anita Bryant in her 1970s “Save the Children” campaign. Then, like now, conservative, white, middle-class moms intentionally stoked racial fears and falsely claimed that those in power — elites — were out to indoctrinate kids. And they positioned themselves not merely as the frontline protectors of children but as defenders of freedom.
Organizations like Moms Demand Action have also successfully tapped into this cultural image of mothers as protectors, albeit in service of vastly different goals. Moms Demand Action’s founder Shannon Watts intentionally modeled the organization on Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.) because, as she told me, she wanted to be part of “a badass army of women” who were working to affect change and prevent the senseless loss of life caused by gun violence. Although M.A.D.D.’s work was deeply political, their identities as mothers allowed them to transcend politics. It is a style of activism that also has deep historical roots, dating back to the progressive era of the early 20th century, when women capitalized on the image of mothers as uniquely moral voices to win suffrage and establish many critical safety net programs.
In short, moms can get results. And motherhood can also be weaponized to aid and enable oppression. But there’s another challenge to consider: By framing mothers as uniquely attuned to the needs and well-being of children, maternalist politics can reinforce biological essentialism and narrow the range of issues on which women are viewed as politically credible.
Maternalism can also be exclusionary, implying that non-mothers have less of a right to speak on issues about which they may also care deeply. Throughout history and still today, it has been a certain type of mother — white, married, middle or upper-class — who has disproportionately been held up as deserving of a public voice, even in progressive political circles. The diminution of the voices of so many other mothers’ voices — Black, Latina, AAPI, Native American, queer, single, immigrant — has resulted in less universal, and frequently less effective, policy solutions.
Is it possible for maternalist politics to evolve to correct past wrongs and become a serious force for justice? I believe that it is, although doing so requires intentional work and repair.
Is it possible for maternalist politics to evolve to correct past wrongs and become a serious force for justice? I believe that it is.
Moms Demand Action, for example, is broadening their base beyond the white suburban moms that comprised the bulk of their original members, talking about gun violence as a racial justice issue, and developing a more intersectional focus. They now advocate against "stand your ground" laws, which have been used as a defense for white shooters who kill Black victims, as well as legislation designed to prevent mass shootings. Organizations like MomsRising are organizing their multi-racial base around policies like the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, a set of bills that comprehensively address the many factors that contribute to the Black maternal mortality crisis. And Texas-based Round Rock Black Parents Association is pushing back against a Moms for Liberty-style framing of “parental rights” by lifting up the voices of Black moms who are demanding that their children have the right to safe and adequately funded public schools, as well as a curriculum that doesn’t whitewash history.
This is the kind of maternalism that is worth fighting for. It engages people around a meaningful identity, then expands the conversation to a shared set of values — love, care, community — to build a sense of shared fate. At a moment when an old, narrow form of motherhood activism is making a comeback — with far-reaching implications for our freedoms, families, and democracy — we can instead join the chorus of moms saying “not in my name.”