How Moms Helped Congress Pass Gun Legislation
Mothers have been leaders in advancing this gun legislation. Research on social movements reveals that activists emphasize certain qualifications to assert their political status and draw attention to their positions. Motherhood is one of those qualities. By emphasizing their gender expertise and moral authority as mothers, the activists argued that they particularly deserved to be heard. But female activists use motherhood differently depending on their ideological and social positions — as I found when I examined the positions of gun regulation lawyer Shannon Watts and former spokesperson for the NRA Dana Loesch, both of whom invoke their status as mothers to defend their views.
Women have long leveraged motherhood as a source of political legitimacy and power. Feminist scholars define motherhood as the active responsibility of raising children and use the term “care work” to refer to the unpaid efforts of mothers to meet the physical and emotional needs of children. Women activists emphasize motherhood to describe their political efforts – which otherwise might be seen as unwomanly – as an extension of this care work. By implying or openly asserting that they are acting on behalf of their own children and those of others, they are positioning themselves as worthy of being heard on issues such as nuclear weapons, racial justice and police violence. Education and Firearms.
But what does it mean to be a mother in politics?
Notably, under-resourced women have tapped into motherhood as a source of political power while resisting stereotypes about what it means to be a “good mother.” Many black women have made motherhood a platform to oppose the violence imposed on their children and communities. Sociologist Nancy Naples calls this the practice of militant mothering, in which the socially assigned care work of mothers is extended to include advocacy for a marginalized community. For example, after the Uvalde tragedy, a group of Latin mothers formed Fierce Madres to oppose not only the discredited police response to the shooting, but also the racism and poverty endured by the city dominated by the Latinos. Like many others, they use motherhood as a form of capital to negotiate with authorities and mobilize support.
When Black Women Use the Power of Motherhood to Defend Black Lives
Motherhood in the Gun Debate
Watts and Loesch — two activists on different sides of the gun control debate — have used motherhood as a source of political position. The two rose to prominence after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012.
Watts founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. She described herself as a stay-at-home mom of five who was drawn into activism by her worry as a mother – who she says doesn’t stop with her own children, as she advocates for policies that will protect “our communities… our children.
Loesch was until recently a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association. Loesch argues that worry as a mother motivates her activism, as no one can protect a child better than her mother, especially one who is armed and capable.
To better understand their approaches, I studied how both talk about motherhood. I collected their interviews with various media published between January 1, 2013 and March 1, 2017, as well as their personalized biographies on Twitter, LinkedIn, the Premiere Speakers Bureau website and organization sites, for a total of 68 documents . I conducted a content analysis, using qualitative analysis software Atlas.ti, manually coding each document for the prevalence of motherhood claims and different representations of motherhood.
Both Watts and Loesch argue that their identity as mothers informs their position on guns – but they construct motherhood differently and come to opposite conclusions.
Watts treats motherhood as a platform that extends care to all children, arguing that a society should protect all children from gun violence. Loesch emphasizes her maternal responsibilities to her own children, saying that mothers have the right to defend their children as they see fit.
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Watts’ and Loesch’s ostensibly apolitical differing visions of motherhood convey implicit sets of political ideas and values. In this sample, Watts describes motherhood as a community act in 35% of the documents, against only 9% for Loesch. Watts’ portrayal of motherhood as a communal act informs her stance on guns and reflects a broader embrace of social policies often associated with the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, Loesch’s assertion that motherhood is an individual right and responsibility aligns with her commitment to libertarian politics.
By emphasizing the social responsibilities imposed on mothers, the two activists speak as if they were above partisan politics. But the different conceptions of motherhood bring with them – or flow from – very different political visions.
This distinction helps explain the range of reactions to tragedies like Uvalde. While many mourn the loss of innocent lives, this translates only into a political commitment to protect “our children” for some, like Watts. For others, like Loesch, it’s a reminder of the need to protect one’s own children.
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Implications for firearms legislation
The bipartisan Safer Communities Act appears to favor Watts’ position on motherhood, offering many of the policy measures that Moms Demand Action advocates, including expanded background checks and the disarming of those convicted of domestic abuse. This part of the law elevates collective security above individual rights to bear arms. While some Republicans opposed the bill, that stance won over a sizeable handful.
But different political ideologies promote different ideas of motherhood and parenthood more broadly — suggesting less common ground for bipartisan cooperation. The power or effectiveness of motherhood claims will vary depending on different audiences’ perceptions of what it means to be a mother. The political right will likely continue to use motherhood to mobilize and appeal to audiences that focus on individual rights, while the left will retaliate with a more collectivist approach. This time, the question “Whose children are they?” – which divides the political left and right – secured a joint commitment to protect “our children”. Will it last?
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Kaylin Bourdon (@KaylinBourdon) is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, Irvine and a graduate student at the Jack W. Peltason Center for the Study of Democracy.