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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
       political life.

            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.