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.

Like Huckleberry, most mothers who experience discrimination at work don't do more than fume. But Huckleberry's case could have been brought to court, says Joan Williams, director of Hastings' Center for WorkLife Law, as could many others. "It's surprising how much goes on that could be presented in court as evidence of gender discrimination," Williams says.

Any employment discrimination case is difficult to win, says Williams, but cases involving pregnancy and motherhood often have blatant statements of bias to back them up. "An astonishingly common pattern is that women are told outright that mothers belong at home," she says. "Employers seem to know enough not to say, 'This is not a suitable job for a woman,' but they appear quite commonly to say, 'This is not a suitable job for a mother.' It's 1970-style discrimination in the new millennium."

Women are starting to sue for more subtle forms of discrimination based on pregnancy or the responsibilities of motherhood. The Center for WorkLife Law tracks and analyzes cases in which women (and a few men) have sued over "family responsibility discrimination." The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the first such case in 1971, declaring that a company couldn't refuse to hire women with young children when it hired men with young children. Since then, the number of such cases has gradually increased — in the last 10 years (from 1996 to 2005), 481 cases have been filed, compared to 97 cases in the decade before.

"Motherhood is one of the key triggers for gender discrimination," says Williams. "Women do experience problems in the workplace just because they're women — that's the glass ceiling we've all read about. But most women don't get near the glass ceiling, because they're stopped long before by the maternal wall."

MomsRising has aggressively branded itself with a feminist symbol cleverly adapted to its purpose: Rosie the Riveter proudly cradling a diapered infant in her strongly muscled arm.

Yet the group has a complicated relationship with the movement that made Rosie an icon. In an attempt to avoid alienating potential constituents, the book, DVD, and Web site scrupulously avoid the now-loaded word "feminism." Rowe-Finkbeiner explains: "The word itself, feminism, has been disassociated from any political meaning. It's taken on an entirely different cultural meaning that mostly has to do with body hair."

The message that runs through The Motherhood Manifesto, however, declares MomsRising an heir apparent to the storied feminist organizations of the past. Ann Crittenden, the influential author of The Price of Motherhood (about the economic hit women take when they have kids), is quoted calling the treatment of mothers in the workplace "the big unfinished business of the women's movement."

It has been more than 40 years since Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique goaded a generation of women into examining whether child rearing and housekeeping were the only paths to fulfillment. For decades afterward, career-minded women were so eager to prove that they could do the jobs that they didn't want to ask for any special favors. Joan Williams of the Center for WorkLife Law saw this firsthand. "I became a law professor when I was very often the only woman in the room," she says. "For my generation to insist on new rules was completely impractical. The only issue was whether we would be allowed in to play by the old rules."

The hard work of Williams' generation set up a new status quo. Most women think that hard choices between career and family are simply their lot in life, and don't expect society to change and help them out. Such expectations belong to an earlier era, when feminists piled up victories in legislatures and courts. These days, few remember that Congress passed a bill in 1971 to create universal child care, which would have been free for the poor and eminently affordable for everyone else. President Nixon vetoed it, and the idea dropped out of sight.

If MomsRising has been bequeathed the feminist battle, it has also inherited the classic conundrum of the movement — an ugly class divide that has often left low-income women feeling that feminism doesn't address their needs. In mothers' circles, the issue has played out in debates over the endless newspaper articles about mothers "opting out" of the work force; these have little relevance to low-income women, who often don't have a choice about returning to their jobs because they need their salaries to get by.

Blades wants low-income women to be an important part of MomsRising's activist base, and hopes that common problems can forge common cause. Discrimination, the lack of flexible schedules, and expensive child care are problems for all working mothers, she says, although they may have different impacts. Blades says that when she realized the extent of the challenges facing working moms today, "that explained to me why there are so many women and children living in poverty. It also explained why there are so few women in leadership positions in this country," she says.

The reasoning may be sound, but MomsRising has yet to master the mechanics of getting low-income women interested and involved. Many families still don't have computers at home, and many women don't sit in front of one every day at work. The Internet-driven MoveOn model may select for the same cadre of upper-middle-class women who have been the public face of feminism all too often.

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