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A Gift That Honors Moms and Families

Values: Proposed legislation would end discrimination against parents in the workplace.

May 09, 1999|RUTH ROSEN | Ruth Rosen, a professor of history at UC Davis, is the author of "The World Split Open: How the Women's Movement Changed America," to be published by Viking Press in early 2000

As part of his repentance, President Clinton is offering the working mothers of this country an important piece of legislation that would ban workplace discrimination against parents. Working parents--weary and guilt-ridden individuals--would become a "protected class," endowed with the same civil rights in the workplace granted minorities, women or the disabled. In short, employers would have to find ways of accommodating the rights and responsibilities of parents to care for their children.

The urgent need for a more family-friendly workplace is among the most pressing priorities for working parents. When introduced into the Senate, the bill will undoubtedly face fierce opposition from business-friendly Republicans and from those who still regard working mothers as the arch villains of society.

Perhaps someone will remind these foes of a few annoying, but important facts: The majority of mothers work because their families cannot survive without their salaries; Clinton won the 1996 election with the largest gender gap in U.S. history; more women vote than do men; and fathers confront the same hostility as mothers when they choose to balance their work and family lives.

Major industries scoff at the presumption that anyone discriminates against working parents. But family advocates argue that employers routinely slight--even fire--workers who decline to work overtime or want to reduce their hours to care for young children.

Donna Lenhoff, general counsel for the National Partnership for Women and Families says, "There's a lot of feeling out there by parents that they do suffer discrimination in the workplace."

I've seen it. A man wants to reduce his hours in order to take care of a newborn son. I hear his colleagues describe him as someone who's clearly no longer serious about his career. Or a young woman decides to have a baby, but the University of California won't stop the "tenure clock" to allow her to reduce her responsibilities. One of her colleagues, a woman who long ago decided not to have children, declares with contempt, "If she were really serious about her career, she wouldn't have a child now."

Excuse me, but wasn't this what the women's movement was all about? Finding a way for both men and women to work and nurture their families?

Here's my suggestion to reinforce the crumbling foundations of feminism. Today,on Mother's Day, millions of guilty daughters and sons will agonize over flowers, Hallmark cards, whether to serve mother her breakfast in bed. This year, I propose that we also flood Congress with letters, calls and e-mail supporting Clinton's legislation.

There is a long and honorable tradition of celebrating Mother's Day by engaging in political activity. The women who conceived Mother's Day in the 19th century expected women to be marching in the streets. In 1872, Julia Ward Howe, author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," proposed an annual Mother's Day for Peace. Like many of her 19th-century middle-class sisters, Howe believed that women bore a special moral responsibility--as actual or potential mothers--to care for the casualties of society and to ensure peace. To these women, the connection between motherhood and the fight for social and economic justice seemed self-evident.

For the next 30 years, Americans celebrated Mother's Day for Peace on June 2. By the turn of the century, a growing consumer culture began to redefine Mother's Day as the celebration of one woman's private sacrifices. As one trade journal put it, "This was a holiday that could be exploited." And so it was. The new advertising industry taught Americans to honor their mothers with cards and flowers and in 1913, lobbied Congress to declare the second Sunday in May to be Mother's Day. Why not restore Mother's Day to a holiday that celebrates women's work and political engagement? Public activism, after all, does not preclude private expressions of love and gratitude. This year, honor your mother--and all working mothers--by supporting legislation that would ban discrimination against all parents.

Nineteenth-century women dared to dream of a day that would honor women's civic activism. We can best honor their vision by ensuring that future generations will never again feel torn between their work and their children.

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