Few people know that Mother’s Day arose out of one mother’s response to the devastation of the Civil War. I’ve reflected on the origin of the holiday for years, but I didn’t realize until this week that 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the Mother’s Day Proclamation. In it, the author—suffragette and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe—decries the waste of human life that she witnessed while nursing injured soldiers and calls upon mothers to “leave all that may be left of home” and convene a congress to promote the “amicable settlement of international questions.”
Mother’s Day, in other words, began as a call for mothers to use their moral authority—as life-givers and nurturers—to end war and peacefully solve global problems.
Today, Mother’s Day doesn’t empower us to solve global issues such as the climate crisis so much as pamper us with Stuff—nearly $25 billion of it last year. And this year, Mother’s Day’s sesquicentennial arrives just as the Trump administration—by declawing the EPA, bailing out the fossil fuel industry, fast-tracking pipelines, and gutting our democracy—is destroying everything the original Mother’s Day proclamation stood for: a safe, vibrant future for everyone.
So, I have a proposal for celebrating Mother’s Day this year: What if we ditch the glossy cards, hot-house flowers, and robot vacuums that few can afford in our COVID-shattered economy anyway, and instead help mothers to fight for what’s most important to us—our kids’ well-being? And not just because mothers (and women and girls) worldwide are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis, but because the climate movement can’t succeed without us.
If what's necessary is to slash emissions nearly in half before we pass global tipping points by conserving madly; consuming less; transitioning to clean, renewable, zero-emission energy; managing refrigerants; ending deforestation and food waste; reforming agriculture; educating women everywhere; and much more—while also creating millions of jobs and a more just society—then let’s be honest about what’s required.
Revolution. At every level of society.
To even have a chance at success, we need to expand our climate movement dramatically, and we have an opportunity to do that by including, embracing, politically empowering, and amplifying the voices of ordinary mothers everywhere.
But is the climate movement ready to do this?
As an activist who cofounded a 350.org chapter and served for years as its creative director, I’ve wrestled with the paradox that many mothers, a demographic generally skilled at child advocacy, are, on the one hand, anxious about their children’s prospects on a heating planet and, on the other hand, are largely absent from the climate movement. I remember at one meeting asking 20 leaders, mostly women, “Who has kids under 18 at home?” I was the only one to raise a hand.
So I started asking my eco-mom friends why they didn’t join my efforts. The answers were always the same: Climate change is overwhelming. We can’t add one more commitment. We feel judged by activists for having kids.
I thought about this all for a long time and finally wrote a guidebook, offering busy parents ways to weave climate activism into family life. In my first interview after the book launched, the reporter asked me, “If you care so much about the environment, why did you have kids in the first place?”
As a climate writer, I’m happy to witness the growth of groups led primarily by moms, like Mothers Out Front, Climate Parents, Parents for Future, Our Kids’ Climate, and Climate Mamas, and countless regional groups. And I’m thrilled to see the bourgeoning youth movement brilliantly deploying young people's energy, innovation, social media influence, and moral authority to hold adults accountable in the climate crisis.
But a lot of air time is also still given to older white men—the journalists, TV hosts, CEOs, politicians, filmmakers, heads of environmental groups, and billionaire philanthropists with outsized influence. Yes, we need expertise, authority, and allies in the halls of power where men still outnumber women. But we also need mother power.
Why? Because mothers are powerful allies in the struggle for climate justice. We’re everywhere, we’re trusted, and we’re the glue binding many extended families and most communities that form around schools, after-school organizations, and faith centers—the places where people form identities and personal values. Mothers also direct the majority of household spending. And mothers share a unique ability to slip across political, religious, and national boundaries to bond with other mothers over a shared love for our children. Every mother I know would take a bullet for her child. That kind of whatever-it-takes commitment to a generation’s well-being—and therefore to the goals of the climate movement—can’t be bought.
Nor does it have to be. The larger movement can work to meet mothers where we are, understanding that mothers are busy in part because we tend to fill in wherever social safety nets unravel. And under the Trump administration, there’s a lot of unraveling. For Mother’s Day, I’m offering some concrete ideas for how to bring more mothers into the climate movement and facilitate their participation.
- Recognize our contributions. Mothers often educate kids about the climate crisis, soothe their eco-anxiety, support their climate clubs, and get them to rallies. At the K-12 level of the youth movement, moms’ roles are often crucial yet unrecognized. This can be remedied by offering the mic to mom organizers and parents of youth leaders at conferences and workshops, and in interviews, and by exploring topics such as "How can parents amplify youth voices?" and "How can parents’ voices be used more effectively?"
- Help us build political muscle in our many spheres of influence and to expand those spheres. Offer childcare, accessible information, and opportunities to weave political activism into busy family life through, for example, apps suggesting weekly “one and done” advocacy action. We’ll help normalize climate justice principles in key arenas where we often have vast social networks: synagogues, churches, corporate board rooms, schools, Rotary clubs, pediatric offices, and influential mom social media platforms.
- Hire mothers as liaisons between families and grassroots groups. We’ll devise strategies to better engage and mobilize moms across socio-economic groups and make events more family-friendly.
- Offer articles and in-person events that teach moms (and dads) how to: demand climate literacy in K-12 schools; leverage local civic influence; pitch climate talks for PTAs; support kid-led climate clubs; encourage faith communities to discuss climate; collaborate with local groups to support student strikes; and write persuasive op-eds that give mothers a national and international voice.
- Fund mother-led grassroots groups. Fund mom artists, musicians, and filmmakers worldwide.
When we honor mothers this year, let’s share with them Julia Ward Howe’s 1870 call to action— “Arise, all women who have hearts.” Let’s repurpose Howe's call for today’s global crises. And as we march forward, let’s invite mothers everywhere to join this epic fight for a thriving future and take on leadership roles based on the commitment we display in the act of bringing up new life, and guarding it with our own.
Mary DeMocker is the co-founder and former creative director of Eugene 350.org. Her book, The Parents’ Guide to Climate Revolution: 100 Ways to Build a Fossil-Free Future, Raise Empowered Kids, and Still Get a Good Night’s Sleep was a 2019 Oregon Book Award finalist.
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