Motherís Work

Some working moms face job discrimination, while others encounter barriers to success. They're all potential activists for the new grass-roots group, MomsRising.

During the summer of 2005, Hilda Turcios was working as a janitor at the Gap's corporate office building at First Street and Harrison, where she cleaned two floors of offices and bathrooms, scrubbing 48 toilets every evening. She was in the second trimester of her pregnancy, and her doctor had recently diagnosed her with preeclampsia, a condition that can kill both mother and fetus. The doctor told her to rest more and work less, instructions that Turcios says she conveyed to the managers at her janitorial company. But they allegedly refused to reduce her work hours or lighten her duties.

Turcios tells her story through an interpreter at the Tenderloin office of Young Workers United, a group that organizes and advocates for low-wage service employees. (The group spearheaded the campaign for paid sick days, a proposition that San Francisco voters passed last month.) Turcios, a woman in her 30s with long hair caught up in a ponytail, rolls a stroller back and forth with one hand, trying to placate her wiggly 1-year-old son. Her 4-year-old daughter sprawls on the industrial brown carpet, kept busy with a huge sheet of paper and a box of markers.

Translating from Spanish, the interpreter describes how things came to a crisis when Turcios was eight months pregnant. She was dragging out the trash one evening at work when she felt wetness on her leg. In the bathroom, she discovered that she was bleeding. She wanted to rush to the hospital — but first she called the company office to request permission to leave. "They didn't believe her, and told her to keep working," the interpreter explains. "It was only after a co-worker called and told them it was true that they let her go." Turcios says she took a MUNI bus to the hospital, where the doctors performed an emergency Caesarean section, delivering the baby one month early.

Turcios' story has a happy ending: The baby boy in the stroller is the child born prematurely. According to staff members at Young Workers United, Turcios ended up filing a claim stating that the company denied her breaks and forced her to work unpaid overtime, and got a settlement (the staff says they can't reveal the amount). But a new organization is arguing that her individual victory is nothing compared to what the effects could be if the multitude of other working moms who have experienced discrimination were organized and could speak with one voice.

Into this arena steps MomsRising, a new grass-roots political action group that wants to make life easier for working mothers. It was launched this past Mother's Day by the Berkeley-based Joan Blades, one of the co-founders of MoveOn.org, and the Seattle writer Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner.

MomsRising wants to address the obstacles faced by working mothers up and down the socioeconomic spectrum and push legislation to eliminate them. The barriers vary: Some women struggle to keep their jobs while managing pregnancy or child care, while others feel they've been knocked off the leadership track by inflexible work schedules or bias against mothers. Their reactions, however, are strikingly consistent. When women can't be both model employees and stellar moms, they feel frustrated and defeated, and often blame themselves. Rowe-Finkbeiner says they're turning their anger in the wrong direction: "We argue that when this many people are experiencing the same problems at the same time, it's a societal issue, not a personal failing."

There are pre-existing groups that wage similar fights, a couple dozen of which are listed as "allied organizations" on the MomsRising Web site. All of these groups are expressions of the same fed-up feeling; it seems clear that a mothers' movement is afoot, Blades says, and ready to make itself known to mainstream America. But none of the other organizations has Blades, a woman with a sterling reputation, an impressive track record, and a golden Rolodex. (Hillary Clinton's office called her to talk about MomsRising and to see if they could work together on family-friendly legislation.)

MomsRising has specific ideas about what must be done. "The reason there is such profound bias against mothers is not that we hate mothers, although some people would argue that, but because we don't have the institutional support that most industrialized nations have," Blades says. Her wish list includes paid family leave across the country; support for flexible work schedules, affordable child care, and after-school programs; and equitable wages for moms.

If anyone can bring about such a comprehensive cultural and political shift, it's Blades. In this new political moment, with the Democrat-controlled Congress eager to prove its merits to middle-class families, her group has a real window of opportunity. "People are right now crafting the legislation, deciding what they want to drop in January, when the new session begins," Rowe-Finkbeiner says.

So far, the response to MomsRising has been warm. The group premiered its DVD, The Motherhood Manifesto, on a rainy night at the end of September in the Senate office building in Washington, D.C. The event was co-sponsored by Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Ted Kennedy, and Chris Dodd, each of whom made rapturous speeches about Blades' newest venture.

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