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What The 'Wall Of Moms' Protests Say About Motherhood, Race In America

Members of the 'Wall of Moms" lock their arms during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Thursday in Portland, Ore.
Marcio Jose Sanchez
Members of the 'Wall of Moms" lock their arms during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Thursday in Portland, Ore.

Candace Lightner became an activist 40 years ago when a drunken driver struck and killed her daughter, Cari.

Today, Lightner can talk about her daughter's death with little outward emotion. "It's not difficult at all, because I've done it so many times," she said before recounting the story in all its tragic detail, from the time her daughter was hit (around 1 p.m.) to the fact that the driver's wife turned him in.

Just four days afterward, Lightner recounts, she started putting together an activist group: Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD.

Lightner is matter-of-fact about why she decided on "mothers" instead of, say, "parents" against drunk driving: "I was divorced."

But today, she says, she thinks that being a group of moms probably amplified their power.

"I think I probably was far more effective A, because I was a woman and a mother. And, of course, B, because my daughter had been killed in the most grievous way possible," she said. "The press used to call us, 'motherhood, God, and apple pie,' and it just sort of rang. And I just think that wouldn't have happened if it had been predominantly men. I just don't."

Today, the power of moms as activists is being proven again by the Wall of Moms protesting police brutality in Portland, Ore. They've gained national attention as they link arms and chant at federal forces.

Many "moms" activist groups are started and powered by women like Lightner, who lost children tragically. But it's also true that stereotypes about gender, as well as race, have long played a role in shaping that power — as well as determining who gets to wield it.

The image of the gentle, domestic mom

Moms have long been a driving force behind activist groups. Women were a huge part of the temperance movement of the 1920s, in part because of their assumed moral authority as moms. Women like Phyllis Schlafly who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, which would enshrine equality by sex in the Constitution, in the 1970s and '80s leveraged the image of moms as caring homemakers.

And today, the motherhood label is on many prominent protest groups well beyond the Wall of Moms: There's the Mothers of the Movement, a group of Black women whose children have been killed by gun violence or police; Moms Against Senseless Killing aims to prevent violence; and Moms Demand Action advocates for gun control.

An image of moms as gentle, caring and domestic is a part of why these groups get attention.

"There's the one image of the mother at home, you know, very quiet taking care of her business. And then there's a woman who gets mad because her child is threatened," said Katrina Bell McDonald, a retired professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. "And that's, I think, why people are so interested when they see mothers banding together. It's as if they've gotten to a point where they come out of the house. They're pissed."

These gender dynamics make for complicated feelings even among strong supporters of the protesters, like Jill Filipovic, author of The H Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.

"I guess I flinch a little bit when I see the political action of women being filtered through the lens of moms, because I think it feeds into these long-standing stereotypes about what a woman's worth is," Filipovic said. "Positioning yourself as a mom first, as a way to legitimize a woman talking, does feed into these ideas that motherhood is part of what makes a woman moral."

It's true that many of these groups include people other than women who have raised children. The Portland Wall of Moms includes those who are nonbinary and people who consider themselves mothers, according to Teressa Raiford, executive director of Don't Shoot Portland, who has been supporting the protesters on the ground.

She adds, however, that the image of motherhood helps make the protesters more relatable.

"You have to, unfortunately, humanize the actual people that are on the ground, because when they use the word 'activists' or 'bad apples' or 'violent protesters,' they're literally dehumanizing the actual people that are out there," Raiford said. "I think that with the moms that there is a consciousness in people that, 'Oh, that's my mom,' or 'I don't want to hurt this person.'"

"Black mothers have long taken it upon themselves to organize"

It's not just motherhood that shapes how people react to activist moms; race also plays a heavy part. For her part, Raiford is frustrated at which moms have been getting attention in Portland.

"The media shows a line of white moms standing together, but these Black moms are organizing," Raiford said.

Dani McClain, author of We Live For The We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood, says that the public is more likely to be sympathetic to those white moms than Black ones.

"It's often been the case that white women are seen as good moms — that when they say that the health or safety of their kids are at risk, then the public at large kind of sits up and pays attention," she said, "whereas Black moms have often been — our motherhood is questioned. Are we good moms? Do we have enough money? Are we married?"

Simply existing amid structural racism pushes many Black moms into activism, she adds.

"One thing to remember when it comes to Black mothers is that advocacy and activism has always been a part of our role in families — whether it's confronting and pushing back against racial discrimination that our children are facing at school or it's looking around and seeing a problem in the neighborhood," she said.

People of different races are supporting the Wall of Moms, Raiford says, and the group has now spread to other cities, including Chicago and Seattle. Raiford stresses that while the moms at the protests get the attention, there are plenty more in roles that don't get media attention.

"Providing witness, providing medical response, blogging, writing opinion editorials, contacting their senators and their legislators, hitting up our attorney generals, helping us file lawsuits if they are lawyers — we're literally building a system of sustainable aid," she said. "And that's what moms do."

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Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.