Million Moms March in Noble Company
by Jodi Vandenberg-Daves on May 11, 2000
In this season of a million mothers marching for the cause of gun
control legislation, we ought to remember the powerful history of mothers'
activism on issues related to violence and children.
Unfortunately, violence against children has been part and parcel
of American history. We need only to recall the horrors of slavery, the
massacres of Indian peoples, often including children, and harsh physical
punishments of children that lasted well into the twentieth century. Many
social critics in American history have seen poverty, too, as a kind of
violence against children.
What is different today is the often fatal outcomes of children's
brutality towards one another, owing to the widespread availability of
guns: Someone under 19 is killed every two hours by gunfire. It is gun
violence against children, a modern tragedy and an international
embarrassment when one looks at gun deaths in the United States compared
with other industrialized nations, that has prompted the Million Moms March
on Mother's Day and related rallies nationwide.
Historically, women acting in the name of motherhood have been in
the forefront of social policy and social movements related to protecting
children from everything from violence to malnourishment. In the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women generally conducted
politics in the name of motherhood. The international peace movement of
that era and the creation of a federal Children's Bureau in 1912 (the first
federal agency headed by a woman–before women could vote!) were justified
on the basis of women's special relationship to children.
Mother's Day itself grew out of opposition to war. Poet Julia Ward
Howe, the day's originator in 1872, asked, "Why do not the mothers of
mankind interfere on these matters to prevent the waste of human life of
which they alone bear and know the cost?"
Later, the progressive activist Jane Addams began a nationwide
movement to bring playgrounds, libraries, and clean milk to poor immigrant
neighborhoods — what we might call today "violence prevention." Addams
claimed that women as mothers had to look beyond the boundaries of their
households, and that the public needed the vision of mothers. Addams and
others justified women's suffrage as introducing that vision into public
Though usually considered to be a private experience, motherhood
has often led to public demands for justice for children. And the efforts
of mothers to draw attention to children's victimization have figured in
broader visions of social justice.
For example, the brutal murder in 1955 of the 14-year-old
African-American boy, Emmett Till (for allegedly whistling at a white woman
in Mississippi), is often remembered as a catalyst of the Civil Rights
movement. What is less remembered is that when the all-white jury delivered
a not-guilty verdict for Till's murderers, Till's mother chose to open his
casket because, she said, "I wanted the whole world to see." Mamie Till
became an outspoken advocate for racial justice, drawing public attention
to the effects of racism on African-American children.
Another often forgotten example is Women Strike for Peace (WSP).
Connecting children's issues with opposition to nuclear weapons, an
estimated 50,000 women left their housework and jobs in a one-day "strike
for peace" in 1961. WSP drew attention to the global risks of nuclear
holocaust and the health risks to their children posed by nuclear testing.
When WSP women were called before the House Un-American Activities
Committee (HUAC) as suspected Communists, they brought their children with
them to Congress, and explained, "This movement was inspired and motivated
by mothers' love for children."
More recently, in the 1980s, women mobilized nationwide in the
Mothers Against Drunk Driving movement, which helped create tougher
legislation against intoxicated drivers and raised issues of underage
The Million Moms March evokes the power of this long tradition of
maternal politics. As a slogan, it recalls the limitations of that
perspective, too. Though the march's website invites "mothers,
grandmothers, stepmothers, godmothers, foster mothers, future mothers, and
all others," the suggestion is that it is primarily women who are and
should be concerned about children and violence.
Such views, though very much rooted in the history of maternal
politics, do not genuinely invite a rethinking of the role of fathers and
citizens in general in advocacy for children. Jane Addams, interestingly
enough, was not a mother. One of today's most outspoken critics of violence
against children and social neglect of children and families is a father,
Cornel West, a professor of religion at Princeton University.
Regardless of the march's limitations, the women who organized
these events deserve a salute. As we listen to tragic media accounts about
violence against children, we need the good news of a movement of concerned
mothers –and "all others."
And we need to consider the march not as an example of single-issue
politics, but as part of a historical pattern: Motherhood as politics has
continually resurfaced to protest violence, protect children and offer a
vision of a more compassionate and just social order.
Jodi Vandenberg-Daves is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and a writer for the History News Service.