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.

MomsRising follows the MoveOn model, with a blog, online petitions, and steady requests for women to host house parties, at which they can show the DVD to their friends and neighbors. The organization differs from the MoveOn example only in its mother-specific subject matter — and in its refreshment advice for house parties: "We suggest a dessert potluck, so there's a variety of tasty treats to share," they helpfully advise.

The group fired off one of its first salvos a few weeks ago. Mothers' groups across the country were buzzing about an incident that occurred in October, when a woman got kicked off a Delta Airlines flight operated by Freedom Airlines for breast-feeding her daughter. The woman was nursing her child in the back of a small commuter jet while waiting for the plane to take off, when a flight attendant approached and allegedly asked the woman to cover herself with a blanket. When the woman refused, she was asked to leave the plane. (Accounts differ as to whether she was then invited to return.)

As the story made the rounds of Web sites and blogs, MomsRising caught the wave of outrage and floated a petition to Delta urging the company to be more supportive of breast-feeding mothers, and encouraging Congress to pass the little-noticed Breastfeeding Promotion Act proposed by Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York in 2005. Within a week, the group had gathered 20,000 signatures. Both Delta and Freedom issued apologetic statements, and, according to MomsRising, Delta may officially support the Breastfeeding Promotion Act to make amends.

MomsRising is unabashedly political. Blades and Rowe-Finkbeiner hope to have enough members to influence the 2008 election, and advocate legislative solutions for most of the troubles they see in working moms' lives. "It's not rocket science, how to fix these things," says Rowe-Finkbeiner. "People have had ideas and solutions that have been languishing, gathering dust, for many decades. And we know that these ideas work, because there are similar policies in other countries."

She mentions that 163 countries guarantee women paid maternity leave; the United States and Australia are the only industrialized countries that don't. (California is the exception in the United States, having passed a state law in 2002.) At least 76 countries guarantee that working women can take breaks to breast-feed or to pump breast milk; the United States doesn't. France offers state-subsidized nursery school to all children from ages 2 1/2 months to 6 years. It's probably no coincidence that there are more working women in France than in any other country in Europe: There, 80 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 50 work, 70 percent of them full time.

A number of bills introduced in the U.S. Congress over the past few years seek to imitate the bountiful European system, but most have been shunted into committee and ignored. Many activists keep a hopeful eye on the Balancing Act, which was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2004 and again in 2005 by Rep. Lynn Woolsey of Marin County. Woolsey knows the challenges of finding work-life balance firsthand; in the 1970s she was a single mom struggling to raise three children on her salary alone, and she eventually went on welfare to make ends meet. Her bill is an extravagant wish list that happens to meld well with the MomsRising vision: It includes paid family leave, increased child-care options for low-income families, funding for after-school programs and universal preschool, and encouragement for companies to provide flexible work schedules and ensure certain benefits for part-time workers.

A spokesman for Woolsey said she plans to reintroduce the bill in the coming legislative session, and "is hoping for better results." Blades says that while it may be unrealistic to expect the Balancing Act to pass in the next year, she hopes that MomsRising's advocacy can eventually bring it from pipe dream to possibility. "Right now, the problem is that these issues aren't even on the radar," she says.

As MomsRising has pointed out, even when a woman feels that she's been blatantly discriminated against, it isn't always clear what she should do about it. Helen Huckleberry was employed as a marketing director at a San Francisco technology company in 2000, managing 13 employees and enjoying the work. Then, in quick succession, she got the happy news that she was pregnant and some bad news from her boss. "I was told by an obviously naive manager that I was being removed from my position not because of any performance issues, but because I was pregnant!" she writes in an e-mail.

Several days later, she tells the full story at a Starbucks near her home in Pacific Heights. After her manager told her the reason for her demotion, she explains, she met with a human resources representative, who quickly backtracked. "They said, 'Oh no, that's not what he meant,'" she remembers. "They said they were putting me in a different position because they were reorganizing — but that position ended up getting eliminated down the way. They ended up letting me go while I was on maternity leave."

Huckleberry, a petite and chic Asian-American with a bright smile, recalls that she was frustrated, but chose not to dwell on it — she didn't even file a complaint. She stayed home for three years to take care of her two sons, now 3 and 5. She was nervous about going back to work, given that there aren't many marketing positions that offer flexible or part-time schedules, but found a job at a company that fills its ranks with working moms: It banks the fetal-cord blood of newborns for future medical use. She harbors little resentment. "You get over it," she says.

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