“We must train ourselves to even be able to see and hear anger from women and understand it not only as rational, but as politically weighty…. Women’s anger will be—as it has long been—cast as ugly, unappealing, dangerous, something to be shut down or jeered…. But these are all strategies that have long been used to get people, including women themselves, to look way from, disregard, and suppress one of the great drivers of social upheaval and political change in this country: their own fury.”
- Rebecca Traister, Good and Mad (2018)
November 9, 2016
I’M a strong mama (roar!),
I’M a strong mama (roar!),
I’M a strong mama (roar!),
I’m a strong mama bear... ROAR!
Poorly slept, overcome by a mix of shock and grief at the previous night’s election results, I long more than anything to be magically teleported to the college campus where I teach part-time. There, I could commiserate with colleagues, comfort my students. I want to see my sadness mirrored in other adult faces, to listen to other voices articulating some version of our sorrow.
Instead, I spend the morning playing fort under our kitchen table with an energetic 19-month-old.
So, while nursing him before nap-time, I make up a ditty. Its purpose is two-fold: (1) entertainment for the kid and (2) safety valve for the emotionally unhinged adult. The kid loves it. All afternoon, he clamors to hear the song again. He “roars” right along with me as we slash our bear claws through the air.
Never mind that my democratic rallying cry has inadvertently shaded into Sarah Palin’s “Mama Grizzly” territory. I am a mama bear. Indomitable. Ferocious. And that image alone—goofy, cliched though it may be—carries me through an isolating and endless-seeming day caring for my toddler.
It will take another two-and-a-half months before I can truly “sound my barbaric yawp” in all of its unfiltered, uncensored glory. Before I realize that—underneath, or alongside, the part of me that fears for my child’s future on this rapidly warming planet, and who is grieving a vision of a progressive America that has been so cockily groped, so callously pissed upon—I am fucking mad as hell.
I recently finished Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. The book, if you haven’t already guessed, got my blood pressure up. Traister recaps the 2016 election and its aftermath, including the emergence of the #metoo movement and the surge of women running for political office in 2018. But she also looks backward in U.S. history, to suffrage, to the early pioneers of the labor movement, to Shirley Chisolm’s presidential run. Traister argues that women’s anger—the anger of an oppressed majority—has had a long, volatile history.*
As much as the book celebrates the potentially transformative power of this rage, Traister also catalogues the many ways that it has been suppressed, ignored, and belittled. One of these has been “the practice of invoking maternal morality, mothering instincts, and wifely responsibility as the motivator for political agitation,” a technique she refers to as the “just a mother and a wife” schtick.
Despite being a parent of two young children herself, Traister touches only briefly on motherhood in her otherwise sweeping, intricate survey of U.S. women’s collective anger. She does so mainly to point out how the domestic has been used as a kind of tempering device, a way of mitigating the otherwise incendiary reputations of female revolutionaries. The labor activist Mary Jones, hailed as “the most dangerous woman in America,” was also known as “Mother Jones.” The childless and rather combative suffragist Susan B. Anthony was rebranded later in life as the kindly “Aunt Susan.” And the Housewives’ Leagues, which Fanny Peck started in 1930s Detroit to combat discrimination against African American-owned businesses, derived their power, according to one historian, from their “non-threatening” invocation of domesticity.
I want to dig deeper into this topic of maternal anger as a fuel for collective action. When mothers spill out from the private sphere into the political arena, is our presence always ‘non-threatening’? Can we beat the revolutionary drum under the mantle of motherhood without lessening our vitriol? Without qualifying our power? Without showing mercy?
Or, do the conventional associations of ‘mother’ and the ‘maternal’—with nurture, selflessness, virtue—inevitably soften our expressions of anger? To get what we want, whether action on climate change or regime change, must we first compromise with those ill-fitting caricatures of our identities and experiences as mothers?
Let’s begin with the obvious: a non-profit organization that wrote maternal anger into its very name.
On May 3, 1980, a drunk driver killed Candy Lightner’s 13-year-old daughter, who was walking home with a friend from a church carnival. Cari’s body was thrown 125 feet while the driver sped off. She died in the hospital soon after.
Fueled by the knowledge that her daughter’s killer was a repeat offender, that Cari’s death had been preventable, and that, under current California law, it would not be punishable, she founded M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving**).
According to one psychiatry journal I came across, M.A.D.D. has made more of a contribution to reducing the number of deaths from drunk driving than the Breathalyzer test. It has done so not just through its ambitious legislative agenda (helping to shepherd over 1,000 new local and national laws since its inception), but also by fundamentally re-shaping social attitudes and practices around driving while intoxicated.
After only five years at the helm, Candy Lightner stepped away from the organization. Later, she would explain that “MADD did not help my grieving, it helped my anger. I was able to channel my anger into saving the lives of others.” She realized that she needed the space to mourn her daughter, and to focus on caring for her two surviving children.
Despite the fact that Lightner brings up that galvanizing anger in every damn interview—I mean, it’s right there in the acronym—media coverage often presents M.A.D.D. as an organization born out of a mother’s grief, rather than one fueled by her fury.
When I looked at M.A.D.D.’s official web site, the ‘about’ page made me cringe. The story the organization tells about itself centers around “the kitchen table”:
It’s more than a place to share food. It’s a place where children tell their parents about what happened at school that day. It’s a place where love and laughter is exchanged during holiday gatherings and family celebrations.
And, after a tragedy, the table also serves as an all too painful reminder of those no longer seated around it. That’s why in 1980, it was a small, unassuming kitchen table where one mom started a movement that would significantly change the course of history in the United States.
Candy Lightner’s rage had been domesticated.
1858 / 1872 / 1914
Of course, isn’t that the point? Anger in itself can be destructive, can spread out of control or consume us. It needs to be channeled toward concrete actions, remade into a vision for change.
And yet, I have my suspicions that we are far too quick to discount or stifle a mother’s anger, including our own incensed feelings as mothers. Rather than allow that rage to burn for a while—a potentially healthy, underbrush-clearing, regenerative kind of burn—we rush to quell the flames.
A telling example of how we fail to grant space, and seriousness, to mothers out in public involves the origin story of Mother’s Day itself. Today, it is (IMO) a vapid, consumerist excuse for a holiday, a day when the physical and emotional labor of mothers gets boiled down to brunch and a bouquet of flowers.***
Mother’s Day began, however, not out of saccharine appreciation but in righteous solidarity. As Stephanie Coontz explains:
The fact is that Mother’s Day originated to celebrate the organized activities of women outside the home…. The people who first inspired Mother’s Day had quite a different idea about what made mothers special. They believed that motherhood was a political force. They wished to celebrate mothers’ social roles as community organizers, honoring women who acted on behalf of the entire future generation rather than simply putting their own children first.
In 1872, poet and activist Julia Ward Howe advocated for a Mothers’ Day (note the plural); she envisioned the holiday as a pacifist day of action. Note the fiery rhetoric she used to persuade mothers to stand up for peace:
Arise, then, Christian women of this day! Say firmly: We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies …Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
An even earlier pioneer was West Virginia native Ann Jarvis, who in 1858 began organizing Mothers Work Groups to improve food safety and public health in Appalachia. Her work as a community organizer stemmed from her own experiences: Jarvis had lost several children to malnutrition and preventable disease. During the Civil War, the Mothers Work Groups declared themselves neutral in the conflict, treating both Union and Confederate soldiers. In the Reconstruction period that followed, Jarvis staged a “Mothers Friendship Day” in 1868 for soldiers from both sides and their families. For Jarvis, mothering skills extended far beyond nursing individual soldiers; collectively, they had the power to heal national rifts.
Two advocates for a more civic-minded celebration of Mothers’ Day: Ann Jarvis (left) and Julia Ward Howe (right).
When, in 1908, Jarvis’ daughter Anna took up her mother’s long-held desire for a day to celebrate women’s activism, she transformed it into a more personal tribute to mothers, including a memorial for her own. By the time Woodrow Wilson declared it a national holiday in 1914, Mother’s Day had already been sentimentalized, defanged.*** It was further tamed when the floral, stationary and confectionary industries quickly capitalized on the new holiday. Their greed so enraged Anna that by the early 1940s, she launched a campaign to rescind Mother’s Day.
How did we get so lost, drift so far off course from the holiday’s original intentions? Yet again, women’s political power appears to be stifled when it’s wrapped, a bit too snugly, in the warm, comforting trope of a mother’s arms.
However, to really make visible the inherent tensions in evoking motherhood for political ends, we need to travel to Argentina. We need to walk with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
In 1976, a military junta took over Argentina; for the next several years, the government waged its Dirty War against those who opposed the regime. They killed an estimated 30,000 “subversives,” many of them young people, their bodies dropped from helicopters into the sea or buried unceremoniously in rural areas. The babies of pregnant political prisoners were also snatched away and put up for illegal adoption in the United States.
And then, on April 30, 1977, a core group of mothers, who had encountered each other during several months of fruitless inquiries in police stations and government agencies, got fed up. They decided to meet in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, across from the presidential office building. A police officer shouted that they couldn’t loiter in the square, so they began to walk. The walk became a march, a weekly commitment to remember the missing children and to acknowledge the fact that something was deeply wrong. By 1980, they had organized a national network of mothers; the following year, they began annual 24-hour marches to celebrate Human Rights Day and bring further international media attention to their cause.
For years, the Mothers of the Plaza were the only visible opposition to the repressive military junta, made all the more terrifying for its “veneer of normalcy.” As Rebecca Solnit puts it, the Mothers of the Plaza took “the national trauma on a walk.” They aired out the Dirty War’s dirty laundry.
According to some feminist critics, the Mothers, who remained a women-only organization, reinforced conservative representations of women as passive, marginalized. Their iconic white headscarf, or pañuelo, represented a baby’s diaper, and was embroidered with the names of their vanished children. The Mothers, many of them Catholic homemakers from working-class backgrounds, embraced their domestic and caregiving roles, and incorporated images of pregnancy, purity, and nurture into the group’s symbolism.
Scholar Marguerite Guzman Bouvard counters these feminist objections by saying the Mothers found their own way to challenge maternal stereotypes. They resisted the cultural idea of marianismo–modeled on the image of the Virgin Mary, an idea of womanly virtue based on self-sacrifice and mourning that is the feminine counterpart to machismo. They refused to weep: “The Mothers do not wish to be seen as grieving women—they are fighters.”
Certainly, the military government itself did not see the Mothers as harmless, “non-threatening.” Once the marches became a regular occurrence, and the numbers of Mothers participating swelled to the hundreds, police vans arrived weekly to disperse the activists. The Mothers endured police dogs, beatings, arrests, interrogations.
Some of them would also die at the hands of a regime that feared them. Three of the original 14 founders—Azucena Villaflor, Esther Careaga, and María Eugenia Bianco—were themselves “disappeared.”
As they grew into their activist identities, some of the participants began fighting for a way of socializing motherhood, making it an identity and a position from which they could transform the nation. The word Mother became “politically charged.” Bouvard again: “As the bonds they forged among themselves strengthened, the Mothers came to include in their new view of maternity not just their disappeared children but all the present and future youths of Argentina.” They assumed collective responsibility for the next generation.
It’s undeniable, too, that the international recognition and media attention the Mothers received stemmed from the moral superiority they claimed as mothers, and from their unlikeliness as advocates. Consider this: would a U2 song called “Parents of the Disappeared” have had the same emotional impact? Would it have elicited the same raw emotion, lingered in the mind so hauntingly?
Ultimately, though, what matters is that the Mothers themselves were galvanized by their collective expressions of truth, anger, and remembering. While marching, they reported feeling close to their disappeared children, empowered to give voice to their needless suffering. Moreover, the Mothers would come to articulate their own unique form of civic identity, learned not from books of political philosophy but from first-hand experience and introspection. Yes, they would embrace traditional maternal roles, but they would also give the middle finger to the militaristic, nationalistic status quo.
As Hebe de Bonafini, one of the O.G. Mothers of the Plaza, proclaimed in a 1990 speech:
¡Viva las madres revolucionarias!
2012 / 2019
Sharon Watts’ Fight Like a Mother echoes the revolutionary rhetoric of the Plaza. The book recounts how she created the gun-control non-profit Moms Demand Action in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. I remember seeing the Moms out en masse at the Texas State Capitol on a citizen lobbying day last spring, sporting their distinctive fuchsia T-shirts, holding megaphones. They were a visible, and formidable, force.
In Fight Like a Mother, Watts explicitly addresses her impetus for putting mothers at the forefront of the organization. In a chapter titled “Be Seen,” she notes the value of narrowing an audience to attract members:
Even to this day, some people ask why I didn’t name the organization ‘Parents Demand Action,’ or something less mom-specific, but I fought for what I knew was a missing movement for an untapped audience within the gun violence prevention space.
Watts is clear that the organization openly welcomes “mothers and others,” but that it was important to her to put women and mothers at the helm. Clearly, this branding resonates. As one of the organization’s California volunteers noted, “It was the word ‘moms’ that was so important to me.”
I’m no psychoanalyst, but others before me have certainly suggested that our fear of mothers as the first disciplinary presence for a young child might contribute to the ways we later belittle them, reading their anger as mere ‘scolding’ or ‘nagging.’
Moms Demand Action are having none of it. They celebrate qualities of toughness, strength in mothers. They acknowledge both the transferrable skills and sense of purpose that being a mother can bring to the fight.
Despite witnessing the many ways that maternal identity has empowered and united others across time and place, I’m hesitant to embrace motherhood as the locus of my own rallying cry.
Becoming a mother has clearly driven my own growing politicization, especially around the climate crisis and its already alarming effects on human communities worldwide. As with the Mothers of the Plaza, motherhood has heightened my awareness of life’s interconnectedness; it’s charged me with an urgent sense of responsibility for the next generation. Motherhood has also encouraged a new boldness, an I-don’t-give-a-shit-if-you-like-me attitude that I really wish I’d possessed earlier in adulthood.
But something bugs me about falling back on stereotypes about mothers, even if they seem to ‘work’ politically, even if they are strategically deployed. It reinforces this essentializing notion of mothers’ moral superiority, our obligation to safeguard and nurture civic virtues, while keeping us at a remove from actual political power.**** It affirms the idea that moms are the only ones who are able, and willing, to clean up the mess.
My generation has made such progress with changing the expectations, the script, around fatherhood. As my husband pointed out, the flip side of demanding action in a mother’s name is to deny that a father’s grief at the loss of a child to gun violence doesn’t also have a powerful role to play in public space.
Maybe this ultimately comes down to personal preference, but to me, there’s nothing special about being a mother that qualifies me to raise a ruckus about the casual violence in U.S. schools, or the callous destruction of our planetary home. What matters instead is cultivating that caregiving role, regardless of gender or sexuality or the presence (or absence) of children in your home. All of us—parents, grandparents, relatives, friends—should value life over death, nurture and growth over exploitation and destruction. Let’s not pin all of that shit on moms. We have enough to do already.
Although we’ve listened to mothers’ indignant cries as they’ve reverberated from the hills of 1850s Appalachia through the public squares of 1970s Argentina, this is far from the whole story. In fact, we’re just getting warmed up, just starting to raise our voices a smidge beyond the acceptable register.
In Part Two, we’ll hear from the poet-activist Audre Lorde on “The Uses of Anger” and look at Black mothers’ pivotal role in collective action throughout U.S. history.
See you back here next month. In the meantime, I’ve got some more reading (and raging) to do.
*Due to space constraints, as well as a desire to keep things inspirational, I opted against a deep dive into the darker side of mothers’ collective anger. But mothers have of course banded together for some pretty hateful ends. Exhibit A: the Mothers’ Movement during World War Two. The Mothers’ Movement consisted of several far-right organizations and totaled between 1 and 6 million members at its peak influence. Their opposition to the war did not stem from pacifist beliefs; rather, they drew on the sentimental associations of motherhood to espouse pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic views.
**Originally Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. I understand the impetus for the switch, but the original name carries a bit more ire, makes it personal.
***Even back in the 1920s, mothers were writing in to Parents’ magazine to express their ambivalence about the holiday. Here’s Mary Fenelon of Grand Rapids, Michigan:
Since I have become the mother of two normal, healthy children, my feeling revolts each year at the approach of Mother’s Day, with its sentimental accompaniments…. I do not appreciate this feeling of awe. I want always to be on the same level as my children, correcting or making allowances for their faults, and knowing that they are allowing for mine….
****I wonder if that might finally be changing though, as anger fueled so many more mothers of young children to run for office in 2018.