Blades and Kunin: Families Count in Our Economy
The last day of March, about 150 women and five men packed a UVM lecture hall for a day-long conference hosted by former Governor Madeleine Kunin. Named for her most recent book: The New Feminist Agenda: The Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family, the conference focused on accessing good quality, affordable childcare; paid family leave; and flexibility in the workplace.
The event’s main speaker, Joan Blades, co-founded MomsRising in 2006. Kunin described it in her introduction as an organization that “hit the hot button issues, so families, not just women, can do the two most important tasks of their lives: being caregivers for their children, and good employees in their workplace—and not feeling consistently torn between the two.”
Kunin credited MomsRising with working against the “fat-cat lobbyists” who usually dominate the political discussion, and told the audience, “It has gotten on an even platform with them to speak up.” Their story makes working parents the unsung heroes of our time.
Blades and Kunin sat informally at a long table in the front of the hall to discuss the current state of women and families in the United States. The conference featured their panel discussion followed by small break-out sessions. Attendees talked with one another in these sessions about what government and the private sector could do to help families manage all their responsibilities at home and at work.
The attendees ranged from young college students to elderly women. To my surprise, the least represented group in the crowd was women and men with children, even though childcare was offered, and the day’s topics focused on them.
If you are a mother, or a father, or have young parents in your extended family, you should know about MomsRising. About six years ago, on Mother’s Day, Blades teamed-up with another young working mother, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, to create an organization, and write The Motherhood Manifesto. They later made a documentary film by the same name.
Blades said she and Rowe-Finkbeiner had a vision. “The dream was that men would step up, and become equal partners with women,” said Blades, “and that didn’t happen.” She said another motivation came from the “huge wage gap between men and mothers. It so happens that mothers make 27 percent less than men, and single mothers make 40 percent less than men.”
“Why are there so few women in leadership?” Blades asked the audience at UVM. She noted there are 12 women among the Fortune 500’s CEOs. And of the last six Supreme Court nominees, while three were men and three were women, only the men had children.
Blades said, “This is not an accident. Eighty percent of women become mothers by the time they’re 30-something. We have a profound bias against mothers in the workplace, in hiring, wages and advancement. And it is a huge problem.”
Blades told her own story: “When I was growing up, my mother and my friend’s moms were housewives, and I looked around [at jobs] and I went— secretary, teacher or nurse—this is not looking good. Then the women’s movement! Yes, feminism is great!”
Kunin chimed in to say that despite the positive effects of the movement, “Feminism is still a hot word.” When naming her new book, SET ITAL The New Feminist Agenda: The Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family, END ITAL Kunin went back-and-forth with her publisher, who was afraid that by using the word, feminism, Kunin would turn too many people away.
Kunin asked Blades if women should “make the word feminism less scary and less toxic, or should we invent a new language?”
Blades paused, and shifted in her chair. I wondered if Blades’ hesitation, in answering Kunin’s question, was similar to my own. My generation tends to shy away from identifying with feminism.
Blades ultimately said, “The interesting thing is, if you go into a classroom now, and ask college women if they are feminists, most of them will not raise their hands. But when you talk about equal abilities to compete in the workplace and equal rights, everyone will raise their hands. So, I would like feminism restored as a word people want to call themselves.”
Birthed on Mommy-Time
Blades and her husband, Wes Boyd, developed a successful software company called Berkley Systems in San Francisco, and sold it in 1997. They went on to co-found the political organization, MoveOn.org. At MoveOn.org, Blades organized constituent meetings all around the country, and figured out how to help people be heard as a group. This experience aided the later development of MomsRising.
During a break, Blades and I sat in wooden-paneled conference room, and talked about The Motherhood Manifesto and MomsRising. As we settled into large antique chairs, Blades crossed her legs, and looked comfortable.
She said, “I wrote the book because of the discrepancy in pay for women. I think most of us think we get somewhere close to [pay] equality.” Blades explained that while childless women are closing the pay gap with men, women with children, especially single mothers, often live in poverty.
Blades defended a non-partisan agenda at MomsRising. “These are pretty unifying issues,” she said. “We wrote this book so my friends in the Christian Coalition could read it, and say, yes, this makes sense.” MomsRising talks about supporting families by spelling out MOTHERS, with each letter standing for a particular issue: