As a woman, I am angry. But as a mother, I’m seething. There’s a robust conversation right now about the historical and present power of female rage as a tool for social change. A number of books, articles and social media hashtags are pointing out that women are fed up. Instead of being silenced by patriarchal ideas of women’s emotions as “hysteria,” women are embracing their anger as a social and political force to be reckoned with.
That is great news for women. But what about mothers as a key subset of women?
Truth is, mothers have plenty of reasons to be angry. We live in the only industrialized nation that doesn’t offer a federal paid parental leave, our maternal mortality rates are rising while rates in other developed countries are in decline or flat, and affordable, quality child care feels like a national oxymoron. Studies indicate that the “maternal wall” — bias toward mothers in hiring and promotion practices — is more pervasive than the glass ceiling. These are just some of the policy failures and systemic gaps that can rob us of the joy of motherhood and make us angry.
But instead of focusing on these pernicious structural barriers or organizing to dismantle them, motherhood is shrouded in the so-called mommy wars. It’s all terribly cliche: the oppressed turning on the oppressed instead of the oppressor. Lines are drawn over infant feeding options, educational choices, or being a working mom outside of the home versus making mothering at home your full-time work.
I don’t believe there is any war. All mothers are simply doing their best.
But the frustration among mothers is exploited by commercial interests, for profit. Witness the ad that used the alleged “mommy wars” to fuel the $7 billion U.S. infant formula industry. Mothers are also marketed to as “types” such as soccer moms, then targeted for all the consumer goods that type needs — from the stroller to the minivan. Even worse, innocuous-sounding organizations stoke rage during the vulnerable days of early mothering, particularly around breast-feeding — in some online places directly insulting and inciting anger toward breast-feeding counselors — which has health implications for mother and baby, instead of pushing for professional accountability or channeling that anger into collective policy action.
“When mothers look up from their daily lives and see that when this many people are having the same struggles at the same time, that means we have a national structural issue that we can fix together, and not an epidemic of personal failings,” says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, author of “Keep Marching: How Every Woman Can Take Action and Change Our World” and chief executive of MomsRising, an online organization mobilizing families for policy change.
In “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger,” author Rebecca Traister argues that women’s anger has been most effective when it is framed as a maternal instinct. No one questions or criticizes the proverbial mama bear fighting to protect her cubs. But even this is about mothers fighting for something else — not for themselves. Yes, we have seen mothers organizing against drunk driving, gun violence or bullying with notable success, but that is distinct from mothers fighting for themselves.
“Motherhood is other-hood,” says Martha Joy Rose, who founded the Museum of Motherhood and the Mamapalooza festival. “If mothers are fighting against something bad or for something good for others, that’s fine. But there is very little interest in supporting mothers to fight for themselves,” Rose says.
The simplistic language of the mommy wars also ignores the nuances of race and socioeconomics and who has the time and energy to fight anybody or anything. We can’t talk about channeling maternal anger without understanding how white female anger is often treated as justified while black mothers suffer under the “angry black woman” stereotype, silencing them into inaction.
“As a black mother, my anger must always be tempered to make other people feel comfortable,” says Dionne Grayman, a longtime educator and staff developer at the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. “Even when black mothers are angry in service of their children’s education, they are viewed as ‘crazy,’ which dismisses and de-legitimizes their advocacy,” adds Grayman, who also co-founded We Run Brownsville, a community wellness organization in New York.
Part of the larger problem is that for far too long motherhood has been associated with martyrdom and selflessness. Early waves of feminism did not value mothering as important work, and even today many feminist circles don’t include the issues of mothers as a central part of their agenda. Motherhood is sold as soft, warm and fuzzy, which makes our anger seem displaced and abnormal. But the reality is, by and large, mothers are being screwed by the system, and we’re mad as hell.
The good news is that we are at a crucial turning point. We should celebrate that female rage is becoming socially acceptable. And mothers need to capitalize on this moment and turn our collective anger into action by fighting for the policies we all need to thrive.
“We need to be more woke than angry,” Rose says. “If this anger can lead to more woke-ness, then we’re actually getting somewhere.”
Here are some ways to make the most of the current women’s movement to unite mothers and create real change.
Things you can do
Model healthy anger: “Mothers need to have a healthy relationship with their anger and a safe place to express it, such as writing or meditation” says Molly May, author of “Body Full of Stars: Female Rage and My Passage Into Motherhood.” “Mothers can model anger as a normal human emotion and can teach their children how to interact and manage it.”
Stand with all mothers: “There’s a perception that while black mothers have shown up for the bullying rally, white women did not lock arms with black mothers when the blood of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Aiyana Jones or Tamir Rice was still on the ground,” Grayman says. “If white mothers stood side-by-side with black mothers around equity, increasing teacher salaries and having curriculums reflective of the 21st century, then all of our children would rise. We would also see a correlating change in justice reform, police accountability and gun laws,” she adds.
Do a self-examination: Avoid falling into discourses that misdirect maternal anger. If a media outlet, corporation or organization is clearly seeking to pit mothers against mothers, reject the emotional impulse. “Each of us should consciously remove the goggles from the water we are all swimming in and ask, ‘Is this real? Why am I buying into this?’” says Rose, also a co-author of “The Music of Motherhood: History, Healing and Activism.”
Issues to focus on
Health care: The number of uninsured Americans rose by about 3.2 million people in the past year, according to MomsRising.org. Losing health care, including protections against preexisting conditions, is something all families should care about.
Paid/medical leave: Only 13 percent of Americans have access to paid family leave through their employer, and only 37 percent have personal paid medical leave, according to MomsRising.org. The Family Act is a comprehensive federal leave program that is accessible to all working people and is affordable and cost-effective. Get involved to help get this bill passed in the U.S. Senate and learn what is happening on the state level.
Equal pay: The Paycheck Fairness Act is a much-needed update to the five-decades old Equal Pay Act. The bill has stronger incentives to deter wage discrimination by strengthening penalties for equal pay violations, provides greater protections against retaliation against workers and empowers women to negotiate for equal pay. Use this tool to write your congressional leader.
Maternal mortality: The MOMS Act (Modernizing Obstetric Medicine Standards) is new legislation that provides funding to hospitals with obstetrics and gynecology practices that want to improve their response to pregnancy-related complications and improve standards, among other benefits. The bill was just introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Affordable child care: Access to high-quality affordable child care should be a right for all families. Many are forced out of the workforce because of the high cost of care. Learn about campaigns to improve affordable child care options.
Kimberly Seals Allers is a New York-based journalist and author who writes frequently about motherhood and parenting. A former writer at Fortune, she is the author of “The Big Letdown — How Medicine, Big Business and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding.” Follow her on Twitter @IamKSealsAllers.