The Identity Politics of Motherhood

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day, and many of my friends had Facebook posts about the radical anti-war origins of this holiday.

In 1870 feminist Julia Ward Howe penned the anti-war “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” which begins:

Arise then … women of this day!

Arise, all women who have hearts!

Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly:

“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,

Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,

For caresses and applause.

Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn

All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We, the women of one country,

Will be too tender of those of another country

To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

Social movements scholars often discuss how particular identities can be the basis of political mobilization. While race, sexual orientation, and gender are the major axes of “identity” politics, this Mother’s Day reminded me of another identity underlying diverse political movements: motherhood. The above quote from Howe is one example, but there are many more. These examples suggest that motherhood has been quite successful as a political identity:

  • The first welfare programs in the United States included the Sheppard-Towner Act, which was passed in 1921 and guaranteed mothers and their children access to health care. One of the main organizations behind the push for this legislation was the National Congress of Mothers, which later became the PTA, or “National Congress of Parents and Teachers”. During years when women were not even allowed to vote, the National Congress of Mothers advocated for environmental and child-friendly reforms and, as evidenced by the Sheppard-Towner Act, successfully shaped national policy.
  • In 1915 women founded the Woman’s Peace Party. The preamble to their platform declared, “As women we are particularly charged with the future of childhood and with the care of the helpless and unfortunate…Therefore as human beings and the mother half of humanity, we demand our right to be consulted in the settlement of questions concerning not alone the life of individuals but of nations be recognized and respected” (quoted in Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace (1993), 31). During WWI, when even radical socialist parties were falling behind their own governments in support of war, the Woman’s Peace Party, supported by their identities as mothers, firmly stood for internationalism and peace.
  • In 1961, at the height of the cold war, women came together to demand an end to war and the nuclear threat through a new organization, Women Strike for Peace. Women Strike for Peace, like the Woman’s Peace Party, stood on their identities as women, but particularly as mothers, to demand an end to international hostilities. Sidney Lens, an organizer of Women Strike for Peace, claimed, “As women and mothers we shall continue to exercise our rights to express freely our opposition to man’s inhumanity to man. We shall not be diverted from the most important issue women have ever faced—the preservation of life in the nuclear age” (“Support of Subpoenaed Women”, December 12, 1962). They are credited for playing a crucial role in dismantling the House Un-American Activities Committee, they were acknowledged by Kennedy himself as playing a role in getting the United States and the Soviet Union to sign a nuclear test-ban treaty in 1963, and they were some of the first Americans to oppose the Vietnam War.

Motherhood carries with it a particular type of legitimacy, and it has been used, possibly more successfully than many other identities, to mobilize different types of political action. Let’s remember that when Mother’s Day rolls around again.


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