We Are Onesies: Fights for Moms' Rights

How a stay-at-home mom built one of the most powerful grassroots organizations in the country fighting for feminism’s unfinished business.

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner never expected to be a stay-at-home mom. Her own mother, after getting divorced, impressed upon her the need for women to be financially independent. She was living up to that mantra as the well-regarded field director of what is now Washington Conservation Voters. Then her young son, born in 1996, was diagnosed with an immune deficiency disorder that made it impossible for him to be put in a child-care facility. Rowe-Finkbeiner quit her job to look after him.

“It was very isolating,” Rowe-Finkbeiner recalls. She was then living in the small, woodsy town of Duvall, on the eastern edge of the legislative district that her husband, Bill Finkbeiner, represented as a state senator.

A self-described “numbers geek” who studied political economics and biochemistry at the Evergreen State College, she started looking into how many other stay-at-home mothers were out there. The information was surprisingly hard to get. The U.S. Census, she found out, didn’t track it. When she did find statistics, they were incomplete, but revealed that many families with stay-at-home moms were living in poverty.

“I found out two things,” she says. One was that stay-at-home moms were “invisible.” The other—contrary to the image of elite moms living a comfortable life after “opting out” of the workforce—was that motherhood apparently put many in danger of falling off a “fiscal cliff.”

She started exploring these themes in freelance articles for such publications as Hip Mama and Mothering. And she delved into some positive discoveries about motherhood too: Notably, some women—Madeleine Albright and Sandra Day O’Connor among them—rose to great professional heights despite staying home for a time with their kids. “Sequencing,” or moving in and out of the workplace, was becoming an increasingly popular phenomenon, she wrote in an article successfully pitched to Ms. in 2002. Getting an assignment from Ms.—the publication of the feminist movement, co-founded by Gloria Steinem—was a coup.

Then came her second awakening: Ms. killed the story. She says she was told that, after a rousing debate, the editorial staffers had decided that they didn’t see motherhood as a “feminist” issue.

That was when Rowe-Finkbeiner realized it was time for a “new feminist revolution”—one that recognizes that the vast majority of women become moms, at which point they face not only economic consequences if they stay home but a wage gap if they work, along with astronomical child-care costs and outdated workplaces that in most cases offer no paid maternity (or paternity) leave and little flexibility for parents.

Twelve years later, motherhood is more and more on the feminist agenda. “It is the absolute most important unfinished business of feminism,” asserts Linda Hirshman, a New York–based author and retired professor of philosophy and women’s studies at Brandeis University.

“Yes, yes!” enthuses National Organization for Women president Terry O’Neill when the subject comes up during an interview on a recent trip to Seattle. “The single best predictor of whether a [woman] will face poverty in her retirement years is whether she had children and how many children she had.” She knows this, she adds, because of statistics, drawn from government agencies and various studies, that Rowe-Finkbeiner has publicized.

Ms. now glowingly quotes Rowe-Finkbeiner and retweets her pronouncements.

Indeed, it is no coincidence that motherhood now registers as a feminist cause; Rowe-Finkbeiner has pushed it to the forefront with a group she co-founded in 2006 with MoveOn.org principal Joan Blades: MomsRising.

What’s more, MomsRising—an operation that now boasts 26 staffers, a $3 million budget, and a radio show, and that claims one million members across the country—and its executive director are getting traction beyond feminist circles. The 45-year-old Kirkland resident, who now has two kids, 15 and 17, flies to Washington, D.C., several times a month to testify before Congress, attend briefings, and give speeches.

Her influence seems to have reached a critical point.

She was an invited guest to the White House when President Obama delivered his State of the Union address in January, and she clapped as he delivered this line: “It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode.” MomsRising, Rowe-Finkbeiner notes, had been using that analogy for over a year.

A few months later, Obama signaled a new focus on women’s economic issues, including those affecting mothers, at a speech in Florida that was seen as a run-up to the midterm elections. On June 23 the White House will host a “Summit on Working Families,” at which Rowe-Finkbeiner will speak.

There’s even a buzzword that has been circulating in the last year among politicians: the “women’s economic agenda.” No wonder. While the issues involved have long been viewed as marginal—and when thought about at all, embraced only by Democrats—they actually “poll off the charts” among voters of both parties, according to Anna Greenberg, a prominent Washington, D.C., pollster.

Seattle political consultant John Wyble marvels at the level of influence MomsRising has had in a relatively short period of time. “It’s one of the great grassroots groups to have risen in the last few years,” he says.

“Oh my God, it’s K.R.F.!” Adriana Hutchings, a MomsRising member from Olympia, says she’ll exclaim when she sees Rowe-Finkbeiner. The executive director is graced with telegenic blonde good looks and a boundless enthusiasm that makes rebellion seems like a fun, wholesome activity; she’s prone to talking about “superheroines” and cheering “Yay!” Germaine Greer—the acid-tongued feminist writer who rose to prominence in the ’70s—she’s not. Hutchings, alluding to Rowe-Finkbeiner’s three-pronged name and star power, laughingly compares her to another icon: Sarah Jessica Parker.

Rowe-Finkbeiner’s ascent stems not only from charisma, but from sophisticated tactics that build on those developed by MoveOn.org, which has influenced the political debate by playing to both politicians and the media. Equally significant, she has managed to transcend the so-called “mommy wars” that have played out over the past 15 or so years.

For all that, it is unclear whether moms’ issues have really taken center stage—or even whether most people know what they are.

It’s a May night at Town Hall, and Rowe-Finkbeiner is speaking on a panel addressing the subject of “gender and work.” Two other speakers have flown in for the event: pollster Greenberg—whose A-list clients include New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio—and Saru Jayaraman, a fiery activist from Berkeley who co-founded Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national group that advocates on behalf of restaurant workers.

“There are some kick-ass women here,” observes veteran political consultant Cathy Allen, scanning the crowd. Seated among the tables that fill Town Hall’s lobby, cafe-style, are the type of women who consider themselves progressive, drawn from activist, Democratic party, and liberal nonprofit circles.

Rowe-Finkbeiner, walking the room before the forum gets underway, plops down by Allen. There’s a feeling of sisterhood that pervades events like this, and after the two warmly greet each other, Rowe-Finkbeiner confesses that she didn’t have time to plan what to wear because she was getting ready for a trip the next morning to the Bay Area for a MomsRising retreat. “Just wear the blue dress,” she says a friend told her, referring to the tailored outfit now on her.

Allen relates that she didn’t know about this panel until her young employee, sitting with her, mentioned it a few hours ago. Upon hearing that Rowe-Finkbeiner was speaking, Allen says, she knew she had to go.

Allen’s full-throttle support for the MomsRising leader comes after a change of heart. “In my world, there was always this looking down on women who had babies,” she mentioned before Rowe-Finkbeiner sat down.

Allen, who is in her early 60s, came of age when the women’s movement was preoccupied with fighting stifling gender roles that had many “housewives” going crazy with boredom and frustration. This was the world that gave rise to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Feminists of the era were more nuanced than some might recall. Friedan, for instance, assumed in that 1963 tome that women would stay home for the first few years of their children’s lives, according to Olympia historian Stephanie Coontz, the author of a book about Friedan’s best-known work. Still, the focus was on encouraging women to enter public and professional life.

“I started telling every woman that she had to have a career,” recalls Allen. The political consultant didn’t have kids herself, and when she saw women who did, she says she would think: “We’re losing her.” So even though she calls women’s issues “my life’s work”—Allen often works for female candidates and chairs a group called the Center for Women & Democracy—she says moms’ issues “were beneath my radar.”

Some years back, however, Allen says she started reading more deeply about societal problems, such as the large number of juvenile offenders. “Many of these kids had grown up with no parental supervision,” she says. “They did not have the day-to-day attention and love of a parent.” That’s when it hit her: All her friends whom she had looked down upon for devoting themselves to motherhood were in fact doing something vitally important for society.

Then, along came Rowe-Finkbeiner, whom Allen knew in the ’90s as “this absolutely terrific” Conservation Voters field director who mystifyingly married a Republican legislator, Bill Finkbeiner (now a real-estate investor). “Not only did we gasp,” Allen recalls of the odd couple’s wedding plans, “we tried to talk her out of it.”

Rowe-Finkbeiner, who calls herself independent but falls in line with many Democratic positions, met her husband while working as a Conservation Voters staffer advocating for its environmental positions during a meeting at the Redmond Family Pancake House. The two kept talking and drinking coffee after everyone else in their group had left, recalls Rowe-Finkbeiner. She says the couple sill has lively arguments, but have learned that “there are good people on both sides.”

With the birth of her first child in 1996, Rowe-Finkbeiner “went into hibernation,” as Allen saw it. “But then she starts appearing as someone talking about all these moms’ issues.” Allen was hooked. “She’s a woman warrior. She has great facts. She always tells me something new that gets me fired up.” Which is exactly Rowe-Finkbeiner’s intention.

“It’s time to get fired up!” the MomsRising leader declares on this May evening, her rabble-rousing call leavened by her cheerful, chirpy voice. She has just run through a gauntlet of statistics and studies: Women without children earn 90 cents to a man’s dollar; those with children just 73 cents. (Like everyone in politics, she stresses the most dramatic statistics. After controlling for education and work experience, researchers have typically found a smaller but still significant 10 to 15 percent maternal gap, according to the same paper, by Columbia University professor Jane Waldfogel, cited by Rowe-Finkbeiner.)

Mothers, she goes on, also face hiring discrimination. Here Rowe-Finkbeiner alludes to a 2007 Cornell University study that asked participants to look at made-up job application materials in which the hypothetical applicants were equivalent in every respect except one: Some listed “PTA coordinator” as “Other Experience” near the bottom of their resume. As Rowe-Finkbeiner relates, participants were 80 percent more likely to recommend the childless women for hire, and the moms elicited suggested starting salaries that were an average of $11,000 lower than the non-mothers’. It’s tempting to chalk this discrepancy up to the peculiarity of putting PTA experience on a resume, except that the same test for men resulted in 18 percent more hiring recommendations for the dads and suggested salaries that were $6,000 higher.

Rowe-Finkbeiner goes on. “Two-thirds of low-wage workers are women, and a large number of those don’t have access to paid sick leave. We have a crisis.” Child care, she adds, now costs as much as a college education, yet child-care workers earn “hugely low pay. Again, a crisis.” On top of all that, she notes, most countries in the world (182, according to a U.N. report that came out last month) offer paid maternity leave or financial support to new mothers.

“Everyone in the room who is a mother, take a moment to stand,” she now exhorts. Roughly half the audience members rise to their feet. “Now everyone who has a mom stand up.” With the requisite chuckles, the other half, including the few men present, follow suit.

“Feel the power,” Rowe-Finkbeiner beams. “Our movement is for anybody with a bellybutton.”

In 2004, a manuscript with a provocative title—The F-Word—came across Joan Blades’ desk. “I don’t always read them,” the MoveOn co-founder says of the many such works sent to her, but this exploration of how feminism had become a “dirty word,” despite its continued relevance, caught her eye. A chapter of the book was devoted to motherhood; when she came to it and its statistics on moms’ smaller earnings, Blades, who has two kids, said to herself: “Oh, I get this.”

Blades, who co-founded a successful software company before launching the organization that introduced online organizing to progressive politics, was herself affluent. But she says her “businessperson’s perspective” led her to recognize that a “system” of discrimination was at play. Blades was so moved that she dashed off a two-page moms’-rights “manifesto.”

She showed it to some of her friends, including Arianna Huffington, who had not yet started The Huffington Post but was an influential figure in Democratic politics. “What are you going to do about it?” Blades says Huffington and others asked her.

She hit upon the idea of writing a book, but was too busy to do it herself. So she contacted the author of The F-Word to explore the idea of a joint project. That author was Rowe-Finkbeiner, who eagerly agreed. And so in 2006 came The Motherhood Manifesto, a call to action that linked each letter of the word “mother” to a demand: M stood for maternity and paternity leave, O for “open, flexible work,” and so on.

MoveOn promoted the book among its millions of members, ensuring that it got attention, even though it left at least one reviewer wanting more substance: “When it comes to the nitty gritty, The Motherhood Manifesto is more packaging than product,” wrote Tracy Thompson on a website called The Mothers Movement Online. A documentary based on the book followed, which had an early screening on Capitol Hill with Obama and Hillary Clinton, both senators at the time, in attendance, according to Rowe-Finkbeiner.

Meanwhile, she and Blades decided they needed to go further. On Mother’s Day 2006 they launched MomsRising, announced again to MoveOn’s e-mail list. People started signing up for the new group, and its membership—measured by the number of people who make a donation or participate in some kind of action—has grown ever since. Blades, who has gone on to found a new organization devoted to changing workplace culture, now leaves much of MomsRising’s day-to-day work to Rowe-Finkbeiner.

Like MoveOn, MomsRising builds power online. State Sen. Karen Keiser recalls the 2007 effort to pass a bill, which she sponsored, that provided paid leave to new parents. MomsRising members deluged legislators with e-mails supporting the bill—one of the first times that had ever happened, according to Keiser. Legislators, she says, “were in awe.”

What’s more, the Kent Democrat continues, legislators saw that the senders were “real people”—an important category for politicians, who use it to mean everyday constituents: not lobbyists or organizational leaders, but the people who vote them in or out of office. On top of that, a couple dozen such real people, many of them pushing strollers, came to Olympia and strung a clothesline on the lawn in front of the capitol building with babies’ onesies decorated with slogans promoting family leave. It was fun and funny—and not business as usual in stuffy Olympia, Keiser recalls.

The bill, which called for five weeks of paid leave, passed, making Washington one of a handful of states with such a law on the books. The House, however, took the funding mechanism out of the bill, so the law, for all intents and purposes, is meaningless.

MomsRising’s effort nevertheless set its template: mixing online strategies with media-friendly gimmicks. Members have also shown up in the halls of Congress with diapers, cookies, and storks arrayed with political messages.

MomsRising doesn’t stop there. One of its savviest techniques is to encourage members to share their stories on its website. They do so in droves, and the organization groups the stories, posted beneath adorable pictures of smiling kids and their parents, according to issue and state. Then MomsRising picks out the most compelling stories, vets them, and provides their authors with training with a D.C. public-relations firm so they can be ready for interviews and public appearances.

Congress members routinely turn to MomsRising for such media-ready real people, according to Rowe-Finkbeiner. Witness AnnMarie Duchon, who wrote a post for MomsRising about earning less than a male colleague at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she worked in disability services, and ended up testifying before a Congressional hearing last month on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would prohibit retaliation against women claiming wage discrimination and ensure compensation if the claims are proven.

Jon Carson, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement from 2011 to 2012, says MomsRising “was the first group I called when we needed to really get people activated around the country.”

"It's one thing to get people fired up in progressive places like Seattle and San Francisco,” elaborates Carson, who continues to work with MomsRising in his current job as head of Organizing for Action, a Chicago-based group devoted to carrying out the Obama agenda. “But to do so in Cleveland and Little Rock, Arkansas, that’s impressive.”

Yet was Carson engaged in firing up people on moms’ issues at the White House? It depends how you look at it. Asked for some examples of his work with MomsRising, Carson cites the sequester debate of 2012, which resulted in the shutdown of various government services because Democrats and Republicans could not agree on spending cuts. “That’s a complicated issue,” Carson says. But MomsRising made it relatable by having “moms tell their stories about how the sequester would impact them.”

That was no doubt useful for the White House, but the sequester isn’t exactly what comes to mind when thinking of core moms’ issues, I suggest. “What would you consider core moms’ issues?” he responds, sounding taken aback. I tick off maternity and paternity leave, subsidized childcare, and workplace flexibility, and ask whether he sees any momentum on them. Actually, two female senators late last year proposed an act that would fund 12 weeks of family leave through payroll contributions. Carson, however, says he’s not up on the details of all these issues, and “couldn’t speak to them one by one.”

The discussion calls to mind another political dynamic. Ever since the 1996 presidential election, politicians have been courting votes from moms—soccer moms, security moms, Walmart moms—but issues like paid maternity leave and affordable child care have not come up in major political debates. Miriam Peskowitz, a Philadelphia author who writes about mothers, dryly observes that politicians “seem to want our vote, but they don’t want to do anything for us.”

Rowe-Finkbeiner doesn’t necessarily buy into that view. She says she worries about the public’s cynicism toward politicians (her marriage perhaps influencing her rosier view). But she also espouses a moms’ agenda that is unexpectedly broad—too broad, one might argue.

It encompasses health-care reform (MomsRising held house parties across the country to help people enroll in Obamacare), increases to the minimum wage (Rowe-Finkbeiner appeared on MSNBC in early June to declare Seattle’s $15-an-hour wage agreement a “giant win”), the defense of moms’ interests in budget battles (hence her work with Carson on the sequester), environmental concerns like toxins in children’s products, gun control, healthy school lunches, and even immigration reform.

“Doesn’t that sound a little diffuse?” asks Stephanie Wilkinson, who once lamented the lack of a “mothers’ movement” in a piece for the thoughtful parenting magazine Brain, Child, which she co-founded.

There’s certainly an argument to be made that all of MomsRising’s issues affect mothers. The country’s immigration policy, for instance, has resulted in countless families split by deportation, and what affects families affects mothers. But as Wilkinson asks: “What doesn’t affect families?”

“We are all about listening to our members,” Rowe-Finkbeiner says, mulling the question. She’s eating an early lunch at a South Lake Union Taco Del Mar, across the street from the CBS studio that she uses to tape her weekly radio show, which runs on the We Act Radio network. She acknowledges her core issues as wage and hiring discrimination, but adds that members have come to MomsRising with other issues important to them, and acting on them has been a key part of the organization’s strategy. Staffers hold a weekly “Monday metrics” meeting devoted in part to measuring how many people are responding to suggested actions, and over which issues.

A broad agenda also allows MomsRising to attract diverse followers. For decades, accusations have flown that the women’s movement caters only to affluent whites. MomsRising works hard to counter that stereotype, pitching stories to Spanish-language media, mentioning whenever possible that the vast majority of women earn under $75,000 a year, and championing causes like minimum-wage hikes and immigration reform.

When dealing with moms, another type of diversity is important. The great “mommy wars” of the past couple of decades have been between stay-at-home and working moms. Whether the antagonism between the two camps was a media fabrication is open to debate, but there’s no question that there has been endless, angst-ridden, and at times combustible discussion about what moms should prioritize and what their choices symbolize. Witness Hirshman, the retired Brandeis professor, who wandered into “ground zero of the Mommy Wars,” as she put it in a 2006 Washington Post piece, after writing an essay arguing that moms who stayed home were making a mistake: “The mommy blogs vilified me as a single, childless, bitter loser; the feminists claimed women weren’t quitting; and a chorus of other voices didn’t care what I said—criticizing women just wasn’t allowed.”

Consider, then, an Olympia gathering in early May sparked by MomsRising. Hutchings, the mom wowed by Rowe-Finkbeiner’s star power, has taken up the organization’s call to hold such gatherings for groups of local moms, and she has invited a few friends into her home on a Sunday afternoon.

Hutchings is a gracious mother of three who, before having children, worked long hours in a marketing position for an architectural firm. Her boss once remarked that she hadn’t seen her baby awake in two weeks, at which point Hutchings realized that she needed a more flexible profession if she wanted kids. She works now as a massage therapist. The first to arrive for this Sunday meeting is a stay-at-home mom named Elaine, who once worked for the state Department of Ecology. Then comes Elisa, a recently divorced mom who brings her two kids. She’s a self-employed property manager. Finally, Rachel, a lawyer, shows up.

Nothing remotely mommy-wars-ish comes up. Instead, over vegetable and fruit smoothies, the group launches upon the topic Hutchings has plucked from a list suggested by MomsRising: “food justice.”

“I’m not really sure what the issue is,” Rachel says at one point, reflecting the group’s attempt to get their heads around the ambiguous title. After a half-hour or so, though, they’ve gotten enthusiastic about calling around Olympia schools to find out what’s being done to serve healthy lunches. They also veer into discussing the prevalence of food dyes, giving Elisa an idea: “What if we started a thing where you shop in white and that shows you don’t want dyes in your food?” They end the meeting planning another on the same topic and an outing to see Fed Up, the recent cinematic exposé about the food industry.

The group’s cohesion is undoubtedly due in part to the topic, which invites no judgment about career choices. But something else may be at play too. Mommy-wars stories are thin on the ground these days. The opt-out/opt-in debate may have exhausted itself, or perhaps come to seem irrelevant in an economy where fewer and fewer have that choice.

“I think that’s dead, thank God,” says Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of a 2006 anthology entitled Mommy Wars. Steiner, who now gives talks for companies and organizations based on themes in her book, doesn’t find that women are entirely done with the subject. Instead, she says, they’ve moved on to how to combine work and home. She increasingly hears from dads trying to figure out the same thing.

For moms, a new cultural touchstone is Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, which argues that women need to fight their tendency to hold back at work. The Facebook COO’s thesis is not without controversy. Steiner says there’s “sort of like a mommy wars 2.0” brewing about whether you really can have a super-top job and an engaged family life.

Indeed, Rowe-Finkbeiner remarks that her first reaction to Lean In was negative because she saw it being used to rationalize the glass ceiling. Women weren’t achieving top jobs and pay because they weren’t “leaning in,” went the narrative.

Yet MomsRising recently found a way to use this zeitgeist moment to its advantage. On May 14, The New York Times fired its first female editor, Jill Abramson, prompting a tsunami of stories about whether the abrupt dismissal was related to gender and Abramson’s complaints about what she believed was pay discrimination. The very next day, MomsRising sent an e-mail missive. “Apparently, ‘leaning in’ can get you FIRED when you start asking inconvenient questions!” “Take Action,” it urged, with a red button linking to an e-mail you could sign that would go to U.S. senators, urging them to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act.

“I’m Kristin. I’m waiting for Jill,” Rowe-Finkbeiner tells a security guard at McCaw Hall who has just announced that it’s time to get out of a hallway and into the room where a forum on workplace flexibility is about to start. “Jill” would be Jill Biden, the Second Lady, who has come to town to open this late-May forum, one of a handful that the White House is holding across the country as a lead-up to its Summit on Working Families. Rowe-Finkbeiner has worked behind the scenes with the White House to come up with a guest list, and so gets some face time with the Second Lady before the event.

Rowe-Finkbeiner joins the crowd a few minutes later and looks it over. A lot of well-turned-out professional women are on hand, as well as a few TV cameras. But she seems to think it’s not the crowd it could have been. A number of people who might otherwise have come are at Senator Patty Murray’s “golden tennis shoes” award ceremony, also today, which features a star speaker, Senator Elizabeth Warren.

The topic of workplace flexibility doesn’t carry the same clout, and so Rowe-Finkbeiner finds her issues, once again, not quite in the limelight. The White House is here, but in the form of the Second Lady. The event will generate a little, but not a lot of, press.

Still, Biden, when she appears, gives a heartfelt speech about the challenges facing working parents. “I vividly recall getting a master’s degree at night while raising three young children,” she says. Believed to be the first Second Lady to hold down a job—she teaches English full-time at a Virginia community college—she says she sees many of her students struggling with similar commitments.

Then, former REI CEO and now Interior Secretary Sally Jewel, back in town for the forum, presides as women from six organizations deemed by the White House to be models of flexibility talk about their workplace cultures. It emerges that a couple of companies, like REI, offer paid parental leave. Another, a technology company called MOZ, gives its employees $3,000 every year to use toward a vacation. Overall, though, the discussion features a lot of fuzzy talk about valuing employees and their family commitments but few examples of specific policies.

Asked what she thinks afterward, Rowe-Finkbeiner—carefully at first, but gradually more forcefully—makes clear that she’s not completely sold on the event. While it’s “important to shine a bright light” on model companies, she says, “too often the discussion begins and ends here.” Legislative change is also needed to create a “floor” of “basic workplace practices,” including fair pay and paid maternity and paternity leave.

“These are not cookies,” she says, alluding to one speaker’s remark that her company thinks of its accommodations to employees as “chocolate-chip cookies.” Nor, says Rowe-Finkbeiner, are they “benefits.” “These are essentials to have for a modern workplace economy.”

That’s what she says she’ll be pushing for at this month’s summit, before which MomsRising plans to hold a series of house parties across the country to gather information to share at the event. Of course there will be a cutesy gimmick. Rowe-Finkbeiner is thinking kites, colored and decorated by members with messages about workplace policies, soaring in unison above the nation’s capitol.

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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