Million Moms March in Noble Company

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 drinking.

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.