(WOMENSENEWS)--Wobbling forward on stilts is one way to gain attention.
That's why four founding members of Mothers Acting Up have been visible high above the crowds in more than 80 events since the group launched on Mother's Day 2002.
"It became such a perfect metaphor for Mothers Acting Up," says Juliana Forbes, communications director for the Boulder, Colo., group focused on political advocacy for children around the world. "One of the biggest hurdles is really becoming public and visible in your community. If you're up on stilts, you are so visible. Everyone's looking at you."
Building on their strategy of mobilizing active members to contact politicians and candidates, Mothers Acting Up will encourage mothers to caucus, vote and ask candidates questions like, "What do you consider the most serious issue facing future generations? How are you addressing that issue?"
Members include Susan Hay, who founded Mothers Uniting, a Keene, N.H., peace advocacy group that brought Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich to speak locally about his peace plan a year ago.
Since the organization's founding, it has been trying to get its central agenda--the global wellbeing of children--integrated into the campaign process by having members ask politicians five questions related to children's future. The first asks whether they support the United Nations' millennium development goals, which were crafted by world leaders to enhance children's safety and halve extreme poverty.
The questions then ask what the candidates will do about global warming; whether they would shift 15 percent of the military budget into programs promoting the health and safety of children; what he or she considers the most serious issue facing future generations and how they would address it; and whether the candidate would create a new page on the campaign's Web site devoted to the wellbeing of the world's children.
The group organizes "monthly actions" for its members. During one week in September, for instance, it prodded members to schedule 10 minutes each day to call their representatives in Congress and urge them to curb Iraq war funding. The group provides a suggested script, emphasizing that the war is making the globe more dangerous for children. Another suggested action is organizing a "girlcott," publicly supporting businesses whose practices align with the group's values, such as fair trade products or offering a livable wage.
About 5,000 women have signed up for the actions in 23 states.
"We really see it as our role and our goal and our honor to start bringing children to the top of the presidential campaign," Forbes says.
The group joins a longstanding tradition of maternal activism. Forbes, for instance, says the group launched on Mother's Day to continue the dream of Julia Ward Howe, who founded the day for mothers to rally for peace.
But Forbes and another new group--Moms Rising--may represent a particularly vigorous time for U.S. mothers asserting themselves as a collective voting bloc.
"This year, more than any other presidential election, the voices of women and families and mothers are being more incorporated into national dialogue," says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, who co-founded Moms Rising in 2006 with president Joan Blades, who is also a co-founder of MoveOn.org, a progressive political group.
Rowe-Finkbeiner, an author and environmental policy and political strategy consultant, says women make up 54 percent of voters, and Jan. 2 Census data show that half of women in the United States have children. It's time, she says, for this group to assert a new definition of family values: more paid sick days for workers, equal pay for women and affordable health care for all.
Moms Rising, with the tag line "Breadmakers and Breadwinners," launched its MomsVote '08 campaign in October. The group has been surveying its 140,000 members to see how they rank agenda items, which they denote by the acronym MOTHER: Maternity-paternity leave, Open and flexible work, TV and after-school programs, Health care for all kids, Excellent child care, Realistic and fair wages.
The group hopes to compile the results and then send candidates questionnaires to see how their policies would align with members' interests.
Web-based Moms Rising has no physical headquarters; active "citizen member" hubs are spread out around the country.
Moms Rising joined with TakeCareNet.org, an online network of advocates for caregivers, to issue questionnaires to presidential candidates on 26 public policies affecting families.
None of the Republican candidates returned the surveys.
The three leading Democratic candidates responded and each indicated support for expanding access to the Family and Medical Leave Act to employees of firms of 25 or more; ensuring sick days for employees caring for family member's routine illnesses; increasing general funding for child care and federal funding for after-school care; and indexing the federal minimum wage, which is $5.85 per hour, to productivity and inflation.
Toward the end of the primaries, or after them, Moms Rising will invite all the candidates to speak to their group.
It also plans to raise $50,000 for a potential candidates' forum on YouTube later this year to spotlight issues such as affordable health care, safe toys and flexible work options.
Closer to the general election in November, the group plans to push voter registration and encourage members to vote.
When women become mothers, Rowe-Finkbeiner says they face a triple threat: affordable child care, health care and paid sick days. If a child is sick but a mother has no sick days, she may stay home with the child but lose her job. On top of not being able to afford child care, she may then have no insurance.
"If you look at it statistically speaking, many women aren't getting to the glass ceiling because they can't make it over the maternal wall," says Rowe-Finkbeiner.
Motherhood Brings Policy Issues
Working mothers are a vital part of the election process, Rowe-Finkbeiner says, because after having children they become more aware of the need for paid family leave and affordable, excellent child care.
U.S. women of all ages with children number 82.8 million, according to a Jan. 2 Census report.
Meanwhile, the report shows median annual earnings for women aged 16 and older working full time at $32,649. Working women earn 77 cents for every dollar of a male counterpart.
A little more than half of new mothers--51 percent--returned to work within four months of giving birth to their first child, according to 2006 census data; 55 percent of mothers with infant children are in the labor force.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported that unmarried women giving birth reached a record high in 2006, with a 20 percent increase from 2002, and more than 1.6 million children are born to unmarried mothers. Many are living in poverty or struggling with low-wage jobs, unable to afford health care, which Rowe-Finkbeiner says is too often dismissed as a personal problem or failing.
"When this many people are having the exact same problem at the same time, we have a national issue that needs to be addressed, not an epidemic of personal failing," she says.
Alison Bowen is a New York City-based reporter covering the presidential campaign for Women's eNews. Her work also appears in the New York Daily News.
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