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Rowe-Finkbeiner began to write about the issues for the magazine Bust, then saw that she had enough material for a book. In 2004, she was about to publish The F-Word: Feminism in Jeopardy when it occurred to her to send the manuscript to MoveOn.org to see if Blades would endorse it.
Sitting on the stoop of one of the residential buildings at Omega, Blades and Rowe-Finkbeiner laugh as they recall how Rowe-Finkbeiner got a lot more than her endorsement. “It was a very good book; it educated me,” says Blades, and Rowe-Finkbeiner lobs back, “Joan’s amazing at deep thinking. I was so excited she liked the book.” Blades laughs and rolls her eyes. “I had no intention of starting another online group,” she says, “but there was just a synchronicity there.”
Reading the book, Blades was flabbergasted when she came across the figures from a study by Jane Waldfogel, a professor at Columbia University: While women without children earn 95 percent of men’s salaries, mothers earn on average 72.6 percent, and single mothers’ earnings drop still further, to 56 to 66 percent. In other words, women who choose to have children are penalized in the form of lower wages that can add up to a lifetime shortfall of up to $1 million—and, since 81 percent of American women become mothers by age 44, that’s a lot of inequality. “That made my mouth drop open,” Blades says. “It was an ‘Aha!’ moment. I knew I had to do something.”
Blades was moved to write a two-page position paper on mothers’ issues, which got a public airing when her friend Arianna Huffington, the influential writer and political commentator, persuaded her to read it at a party in Hollywood. “After I’d read my two pages, these Hollywood moguls all looked at me and said, ‘You’re right—now what are you going to do about it?’” Blades recalls. She got on the phone to Rowe-Finkbeiner, and the two agreed to expand Blades’s paper into another book, The Motherhood Manifesto. The seeds for MomsRising were sown.
FLEXING ITS MUSCLE
Naturally enough, MomsRising borrows a lot of its structure from MoveOn.org, where Blades learned her online grassroots organizing. Like MoveOn, MomsRising encourages its members to throw house parties in order to spread the word about the organization. Guests view the Motherhood Manifesto documentary, produced in
association with the book. Clearly low-budget, the documentary is earnest and a little clunky, but it contains memorable moments, like the scene where a smiling woman tells her friend she’s going to start a family. “Are you crazy?” the friend shoots back. “Don’t you know what happens to mothers in this country?”
At the two-year mark, MomsRising has already shown that it has considerable muscle. In April this year, following heavy campaigning by MomsRising, New Jersey’s state senate approved a bill giving employees the right to paid leave to care for a sick relative or newborn. Bills on paid family leave have come close to passing in New York and Oregon, and are expected to pass soon in those states. In Washington, DC, legislators are working to expand paid family leave for federal workers, flight attendants, and even military personnel.
Last year, thanks partly to lobbying efforts by MomsRising, Washington became the second state in the US to provide parents with paid family leave. (California was the first, before the formation of MomsRising.) The passage of the bill followed the organization’s first-ever onesie display. “The onesies really made a difference,”
says Marilyn Watkins, chair of the Family Leave Institution in Washington, who’s attending the Omega workshop. “The legislators took notice of the large voting block we had behind us, and, of course, they all wanted to be photographed next to the onesie line.”
“We’re seeing a lot of work in that area,” Rowe-Finkbeiner remarks. “Of course, we want paid FMLA [Family Medical Leave Act], which is also family leave insurance, for everybody. But we’re seeing that we’re getting there at the state level, and we’re getting there step by step at the federal level.”