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.

Paul Trapani
Joan Blades says she believes that working moms can become a potent political force.
Paul Trapani
Joan Blades says she believes that working moms can become a potent political force.
The MomsRising book serves as political primer and activist tool.
Paul Trapani
The MomsRising book serves as political primer and activist tool.
Darya Mead found it impossible to juggle full-time work and family activities ¬ó like teaching yoga to her son's preschool class.
Paul Trapani
Darya Mead found it impossible to juggle full-time work and family activities ¬ó like teaching yoga to her son's preschool class.
Blades works on MomsRising during "mothers' hours," while the kids are at school or asleep.
Paul Trapani
Blades works on MomsRising during "mothers' hours," while the kids are at school or asleep.

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, 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.

"Despite all the rhetoric about being family-friendly, we have structured a society that is decidedly unfriendly," Sen. Obama said. "What's missing now is a movement. What's missing now is an organization. That's why MomsRising is so important."

Added Sen. Kennedy: "We can't wait to get busy on your agenda."

Blades certainly has a history of being in the right place at the right time. She and her husband, Wes Boyd, founded a software company called Berkeley Systems in the early 1990s, which became famous for the After Dark screen saver — a collection of visual options that included shiny silver toasters winging their way through the black night.

They sold the company for $13.8 million in 1997, which gave them free time to hang out and read the newspaper. Unfortunately, it was stocked with stories about President Bill Clinton's impending impeachment. Frustrated and bored, Blades and Boyd wrote a petition inviting Congress to "censure and move on," and e-mailed it to fewer than 100 friends and family members. Within a week, 100,000 people had signed on, and a new model for grass-roots political action had been launched. gave pissed-off, marginalized liberals a voice, and coaxed busy professionals into political action through baby steps — it's easy to sign an online petition, it doesn't take much time to phone a senator, and it's pretty painless to make an online contribution of $45 (the average amount in the last election cycle). The group reacts swiftly to events, and can raise thousands of dollars or fill a petition at the drop of an e-mail. It now boasts 3.2 million members — 1 of every 100 Americans belongs to MoveOn.

MoveOn's finest moment may have come in the midterm elections last month. The organization raised $27 million during the two-year election cycle, and its members phone-banked and house-partied until they dropped. In one telling example, MoveOn members made more than 500,000 phone calls to Virginia voters, urging them to dump Republican George Allen, the senator accused of using racist slurs. His Democratic opponent, Jim Webb, won by 9,329 votes, suggesting that those phone calls and house parties may have played a role in pushing the race to the left.

The woman with all this power in Washington, D.C., lives in a modest house in Berkeley with her husband, their two children (ages 10 and 17), and a fluffy old dog. Blades is a slim, active woman with brown hair just starting to gray. She drives a hybrid Prius, and prefers to be interviewed in Tilden Park in the Berkeley hills, where she can unspool her thoughts while striding vigorously through the forest. The idea that became MomsRising, she explains, started with a nice award in 2003.

"I got an award from Ms.magazine, and thought, 'Cool!'" Blades says in her typical forward-rushing diction, referring to her designation as one of 2003's "Women of the Year." "But I quickly found out that feminism is not cool these days." When she mentioned the award to younger women, she learned that many now reject the label "feminist," assuming that it applies only to man-hating, lipstick-loathing militants.

Coincidentally, soon after she received the award, she got a manuscript in the mail — one of many that authors send in hopes of gaining attention from MoveOn. This one was Rowe-Finkbeiner's first book, The F-Word: Feminism in Jeopardy. Blades started reading with curiosity, and encountered a startling statistic in the introduction: According to a Columbia University economist, the wage gap between childless women and mothers is now greater than the wage gap between women and men.

The figures suggested to Blades that the problems faced by working moms may be feminism's next frontier. For every dollar that a man earns today, a childless woman earns 90 cents — not perfect equality, but close — while mothers earn 73 cents, on average, and single moms earn 60 cents. These numbers represent disparities in hourly wages, so part-time work schedules and unpaid leaves don't skew the statistics.

"That was my 'a-ha' moment," Blades says. "I started thinking, 'As an organizer, why didn't I know about this? And why aren't people up in arms? And why aren't we organizing around this issue?'"

After nine years with MoveOn, Blades naturally looks for big issues and big demographic groups that she can haul into the political process. When she realized that 82 percent of all women become mothers by the age of 44, she realized she could tap into a base that makes MoveOn's constituency look minor-league. "That's the fact that made me go, 'Wait a minute — this is the issue that crosses political lines, socioeconomic lines. We all have mothers!'"

While MomsRising will help women who have experienced job discrimination, its largest demographic is likely to be working mothers who haven't been blatantly wronged, but still feel like something isn't right. Like Darya Mead.

Mead's boxy house in the Excelsior is prim and neat from the outside, full of funky charm and family chaos on the inside. It's an hour before her two sons' bedtime, and, having just finished a rousing game of Candyland, they're now shimmying into pajamas. Mead, a warm woman in her 30s with an open smile and a vintage aesthetic, marshals the boys cheerfully through the ritual, and gets them settled in front of a DVD. Then she walks into the boys' tiny bedroom, sits on the floor, and lets the frustration flood out of her.

Mead and her husband want to raise their sons in San Francisco, but the mortgage payments and now private school payments for the older boy have kept both parents at work, and at the end of their ropes. "Lo and behold, it's brutal," Mead says ruefully. "We're kind of in the thick of it now — wondering, 'What the fuck are we doing?'"

After working part time for several years, Mead went back to work full time last spring at a video and TV production company. She found it more stressful than she had imagined. An epiphany came after her younger son's preschool asked her to teach yoga classes to the kids on Friday mornings. When the classes ended, she would rush back to her car, pull off her tights, pull on her skirt, speed to work, and run to her desk. She soon realized she couldn't keep up the schedule. She asked her company if she could cut back on her hours, but was told that wasn't an option. So she gave notice.

"I don't want it to be that because I have kids, I can't do this job, because I don't want to perpetuate the myth that women can't cut it because we're too distracted, or not committed enough," she says. "I was raised in the 'I Am Woman' '70s." Later, she writes in an e-mail, "I was raised to believe I could succeed professionally on a par with men AND mother in a satisfying and meaningful way. NOT POSSIBLE in America in 2007 or at least the Bay Area."

Mead's story illustrates the findings of a recent study by the nonprofit Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law called "Opt Out or Pushed Out? The Untold Story of Why Women Leave the Workforce." Many professional offices are still designed for the work force of the 1950s, the report states, in which male employees worked 40-hour weeks year after year, counting on the missus to keep the home fires burning. Today, 72 percent of American mothers work outside the home, yet companies have been slow to adapt to their needs with part-time or flex-time schedules. While companies may see such restructuring as difficult and daunting, MomsRising argues that having family-friendly policies in place will be a competitive advantage in the years to come. Demographers foresee a labor shortage as baby boomers start to retire; companies that can attract and retain skilled women will have a leg up.

Even when businesses do offer part-time or flexible schedules, many women complain that if they accept that option, their bosses consider them less committed and ambitious. One San Francisco woman, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid jeopardizing her job, says she was demoted to a "second-class citizen" at her accounting firm after having her first child in 2004. She was back at her desk eight weeks later, but on a part-time schedule. She says she is no longer asked to participate in office activities like mentoring, recruiting, and marketing for the firm — activities in which prospective partners are expected to excel. She feels lucky to have a part-time position that works for her, she says, but certain things still rankle, like no longer qualifying for holiday pay and not being told about some managerial meetings. Her husband also works reduced hours at his job, the woman notes, but that hasn't hampered his career in the same way.

MomsRising hopes to coax employers to commit to policies that are more welcoming for working moms, through tax breaks and government incentives, but first the group is focusing on an even more blatant form of discrimination. A professor of sociology at Cornell University conducted an experiment, asking prospective employers to evaluate the resumes of candidates with equivalent education and experience; the only difference was that half the candidates declared that they had children at home, and half revealed other biographical details. The mothers were 44 percent less likely to be offered a job, and those who did get offers saw $11,000 less in salary, on average.

In January 2007, MomsRising will support a bill in Pennsylvania to outlaw what Blades calls "maternal profiling," the practice of asking potential employees if they have kids or a husband. "This issue makes really clear the depths of discrimination against mothers, especially against single mothers," says Blades. When struggling single moms are denied jobs because of their families, it only confirms the stereotype that they can't succeed on their own. "You're asking these women to do something that's really impossible for them, because the system is so stacked against them," says Blades.

Seven months in, MomsRising is still announcing its existence and gathering strength — it counts about 55,000 members so far. Its Web site sells branded T-shirts and necklaces, along with The Motherhood Manifesto DVD and the book of the same name, co-written by Blades and Rowe-Finkbeiner. Neither the book nor the DVD qualifies as a riveting work of nonfiction; they're organizing tools, with enough statistics to help one win an argument against Bill O'Reilly and rousing calls to action that shepherd potential new members toward the Web site.

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.

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.

In response, Rowe-Finkbeiner says she believes a fair number of women are staging "offline" events using the MomsRising DVD and not necessarily coordinating through the Web site. Blades notes that the Internet is only one form of communication; the word about MomsRising can also spread by phone, over a neighbor's fence, and at playgrounds. There's no way to quantify those actions, however, and the group's effectiveness with the huge numbers of working mothers in the trades and service industries remains to be proven.

One thing that MomsRising can ensure, though, is that if a woman can find time to be pissed off about the unreasonable demands and unfair choices she's confronted with, she can find time to participate in the group's campaigns. "That's one of the reasons for having an online, armchair model of activism," says Rowe-Finkbeiner. "I have a laptop on my kitchen counter, and often do my political activism while cooking dinner, and watching my two kids, and my puppy."

This, then, may be the modern feminist's new look. She has a diaper bag and a breast pump, a laptop next to the blender, a bellyful of thwarted ambition, and a level of outrage that is only beginning to become obvious in mainstream American society. It's somewhat surprising that no one saw the mothers' movement coming: After all, who hasn't cowered before the power and moral authority of an angry mom?

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