Activist Mothering

By Suzanne CopeJuly 13, 2022

Activist Mothering

Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change by Angela Garbes

IT WAS THE stories of the activist mothers that kept me going. In those dark early days of spring 2020, after I finished hours of online teaching, back when my littlest was still napping, I would return to researching and writing about Cleo Silvers, the Black Panther Party member who helped lead the South Bronx Free Breakfast for Children Program, and Aylene Quin, restaurant owner, voting rights activist, and single mom of four children in southern Mississippi. My research had begun a few months earlier, part of a book project whose goal was to explore how women were using food as a way to create political and social change. A term I came across early on in my research helped me to frame this thinking about the power of caregiving more broadly. Dr. Françoise N. Hamlin, author of the book Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta after World War II (2012), referred to the work of civil rights activist Vera Mae Pigee as “activist mothering” — i.e., community leadership that capitalizes on gendered skills and access, especially in nurturing youth. It was clear to me that Aylene, Cleo, and the women they toiled alongside were activist mothers like Pigee — and this concept helped me to view the seemingly endless and thankless demands of mothering as a possible conduit for positive change.

Angela Garbes, author of Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, also found inspiration during these trying days, but she was too overwhelmed with caregiving to put words on the page at first. It was her subsequent exploration of why modern American caregiving felt so exhausting and isolating that led her to this new book. I’ll admit that, when I first read the title, I thought she was referring to these same mothers on the front line of activism, women like Cleo and Aylene, whose stories anchored my book Power Hungry: Women of the Black Panther Party and Freedom Summer and Their Fight to Feed a Movement (2021). And I’ve come to realize that in fact she was, just not in the way I expected. As I read on, I realized that we were both reflecting and writing about women who used their “mothering” skills for social change. And while we were looking at this phenomenon in different ways and focusing on contexts more than a half-century apart, we were both immersed in this research during the early days of the pandemic when so much was being asked of mothers — which only supported Garbes’s assertion that “[w]riting about mothering — right now — is more consequential than ever.”

Garbes starts Essential Labor by reminding us (not that many of us need reminding) of the challenges of mothering today, especially during a pandemic, and especially for mothers of color who have long been overrepresented in devalued care work, and underrepresented in positions of power. She helps situate this present-day crisis of mothering in a larger context, showing how what had long been a challenge for working-class mothers and mothers of color was finally being acknowledged by white middle-class mothers when they, too, were faced with similar problems and the constant tension between work and family responsibilities.

As Essential Labor notes, middle-class white women have had a complicated relationship with care work and care workers — not just those taking care of the people they love, but others providing the daily support necessary to make a household run, such as cleaning up and washing clothes. Garbes, whose Filipino parents both worked in health care and whose extended family and community have worked in caregiving, knows all this intimately. A disproportionate percentage of women of color work as caregivers and in household support roles, making wages that often keep them near or below the poverty line. Their work subsidizes the ability of middle-class women to “lean into” their career, also creating a racial and class division that complicates the fight for public support for working women, in particular mothers. Thus, Garbes writes, “mainstream white American feminism […] had little interest in an inclusive feminism rooted in creating a better society for everyone.” In contemporary America, middle-class women rely on the devaluation of the very care work they provide in the home in order to be able to work outside the home.

This situation works to minimize women’s political and social influence more broadly. Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins writes about how, during the period of enslavement and after, Black women were limited in the roles they could play in dominant society — often relegated to caregiving, as cook, housekeeper, “mammy,” or nursemaid. For the purposes of both patriarchy and white supremacy, this work had to be seen as of less value. But Black women sought what power they could within these limited opportunities, demonstrating the influence that activist mothering can have. Maria W. Stewart, who was the first woman to lecture on politics in the 1830s (and whom history identifies as Black), even encouraged women to use their role as mothers for social activism in their homes, communities, and beyond. Women of the Black Freedom Movement, such as Aylene Quin, fed activists and gave them a space to meet, while also using their role as community leaders to solicit support for voting rights and to employ other women so they could achieve economic freedom from white employers. Others, like Vera Mae Pigee, used their organizing skills to facilitate mass food distribution and grow the local youth chapters of the NAACP.

The Black Panther Party, just a few years later, had a membership that was two-thirds women, many of whom worked in and led programs that provided basic care for their communities — typically caregiving actions such as providing food, clothes, shoes, and housing security. It was through these programs that they were able to gain the trust of the communities they served and model the change they wanted to see in social and political structures. While society might have devalued this work, its influence was noticed by J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, who found the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Children Program — which at its peak was feeding more children daily than the state of California — so threatening that he called the primarily women-run program the “most influential activity” of the Panthers and “as such […] the greatest threat.” So, he quietly and illegally waged a war against the Panthers, with undercover agents telling neighbors and the media that their free food was poisonous, and some officers urinating on donations and threatening young kids on their way to breakfast, among many other, even more direct attacks on Party members. Ultimately, the work of Cleo Silvers and these other activist mothers would pressure the government into instituting a federal free breakfast program, and these leaders would contribute other caregiving innovations, such as community-based nursing models and a patients’ bill of rights.

Acts of mothering have also helped win wars. Feminist historian Anna Bravo details the ways that women were essential to the Allied forces’ victory in World War II, in part through what she calls the “maternal code.” Those in need, particularly in Italy, but also elsewhere during the Nazi occupation, “turned to women as strong, protective figures” who used their feminized skills to support the growing antifascist movement. Upward of 100,000 women in occupied Italy organized under the Women’s Defense Group (Gdd) and hid, clothed, and fed resistance fighters, at risk of arrest, torture, rape, and death. (More than 35,000 women took part in acts of armed resistance as well.) These women sometimes used the trappings of pregnancy or the cover of their children to perform these acts under the noses of Axis officers. They also planted bombs, led resistance battalions, acted as spies, and transported messages and munitions, at first moving with relative ease because the Nazis and Italian fascists didn’t believe women capable of political engagement.

While many historians — at least the ones who concern themselves with women’s role in World War II — acknowledge how essential the maternal code was during the long and bloody fight on Italian soil, Italian women were, without exception, forced to watch the victory parades on the sidelines in the spring of 1945. Despite the fact that the Gdd led directly to the growing influence of women in the postwar Italian government, with women getting the right to vote in 1945 and female antifascists finally holding public roles that had long been denied to women. Many of these women would use their influence to advocate for women’s and children’s rights for decades afterward. This path to increased political influence was directly paved by mothering, but aside from a few scholars like Bravo, little has been acknowledged about the power of the maternal code. In postwar Italy, as in the United States, the work and skills of mothering and the realities of political and social power are still largely seen in opposition. So how do we bridge this gap?

Garbes calls for a paradigm shift to properly value care work and the (mostly) women doing this work, both as their paid profession and as unpaid labor. “It requires a new way of seeing the work and the world, bringing forth a new vision,” she writes. “We must start by acknowledging mothering as highly skilled work that deserves respect and compensation.” And we don’t have to look far — historically or in contemporary life — to see evidence of the value of these mothering skills that our society undervalues and expects for free. Consider the experience needed to organize the procuring of donations and the preparing and serving of daily breakfasts for thousands of children, as the female leaders of the Black Panther Party accomplished with their Free Breakfast for Children Program.

It was one of the few women who rose to national leadership in the Black Panther Party who dared to imagine what this paradigm shift might look like. Angela Davis, as Garbes quotes her, envisioned a future of socialized housework and childcare: “teams of trained and well-paid workers, moving from dwelling to dwelling” in a service that would be “affordable and accessible to working class people.” Childcare and meal preparation could also be done in groups, assisted by a larger community. If this seems too radical to imagine, Garbes also suggests that we look to non-Western models that have been in practice for centuries to find liberation in parenting: in indigenous cultures, for example, children were vital parts of the community, learning from elders according to their interests. It is American-style capitalism that has made childrearing almost exclusively the domain of mothers.

Once again, Garbes suggests we look to history to find a path forward, using the power of solidarity. For example, in 1909 in New York City tens of thousands of garment workers organized a strike that successfully negotiated for higher wages and better workplace conditions. This same group of union organizers began what would evolve into International Women’s Day, which continues to fight for the rights of working women across all classes to the present day. It was also mostly women, organized by Italy’s Gdd, who took part in an International Women’s Day strike of 1,000,000 workers — from housewives to factory laborers to farmhands — during the Nazi occupation in 1944. Few were arrested and there was little violence, in part because even the tyrannical Nazis and Italian fascist leaders understood the power in numbers and what it would mean if women stopped working. The strikers would win some of their demands for shorter working hours and more food and heating supplies, but more importantly, this action would become the moment when Italian women were finally seen as a political force to be reckoned with. Decades later, in Iceland, Garbes details how a mass strike of female domestic and professional workers ground the country to a halt; within a few years Iceland had elected their first female president and instituted pay equity, among other legal changes. “Part of the strike’s legacy,” Garbes writes, “is showing what is possible to organize on a mass scale, and that such a show of solidarity made lasting impressions that are still invoked today.”

So why have modern American women not done the same? According to Garbes, the inherent racism and classism of the United States has impeded this level of solidarity, and thus actual change, writing that “[i]t makes white women uncomfortable to think that they are no different from their hired help.” Countering this systemic bias, many activists today are explicitly striving for intersectionality in their conception of feminism — work we can support in our own daily mothering, whatever form that takes. Finding a path forward for and with our children and our communities is what Essential Labor is all about. Garbes wants to help caregivers embrace the “highly skilled, […] essential, creative, and influential” work they do as part of the fight for broader social and political change. In the second half of her book, she focuses on how these changes need to start with the individual — how we can spark political movements and paradigm shifts within ourselves. Individual chapters discuss mothering and movement, body image, physicality, and independence, among other ways of “unlearning” the limitations surrounding motherhood and caregiving that Western culture’s history of “colonization,” “patriarchy, white supremacy, and ableism” has taught us. We shouldn’t — we can’t — parent alone; it does not have to feel limiting and isolating.

This societal paradigm shift can feel daunting, but we can start by changing ourselves and the way we think about caregiving and mothering. We can move forward by “witnessing,” Garbes tells us. Parenting doesn’t always have to look like a struggle. “Love is acts of attention,” she says. “I love seeing how everything around us is always moving, changing, evolving, unfurling.” We can start with a single person — perhaps our child, or someone else’s — and help create for them the world we want to see. This is what Aylene Quin and Cleo Silvers were doing, what indigenous mothers have long been doing, what the women in World War II Italy were doing: fighting for broader change while also mothering, in any way they could, one person at a time.


Suzanne Cope is the author of the book Power Hungry: Women of the Black Panther Party and Freedom Summer and Their Fight to Feed a Movement and host of the upcoming podcast Survival Pending Revolution on Whetstone Radio. Cope is also a narrative journalist and feminist and food studies scholar who teaches at New York University. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Food & Wine.

LARB Contributor

Suzanne Cope is the author of the book Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Spirits, and the Return of Artisanal Food and has written about food and culture for The New York Times, The Atlantic, BBC, Washington Post, among others. Also a food studies scholar, she teaches writing at NYU. She is currently working on a project about food and political revolution.


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