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Joan Blades on Real Family Values

October 13, 2006

With Joan Blades “there’s no down, you just keep going up and up,” said Carol Jenkins, Women’s Media Center president, introducing the pioneering social activist at a recent WMC journalists’ lunch. After ten years with Berkeley Systems, the software company they founded, Blades and her husband Wes Boyd went on to reinvigorate grassroots political and civic engagement across America with their groundbreaking project, Blades has now turned her attention to what she terms “the prototypical feminist issue” in her new project, MomsRising, which intends to employ MoveOn’s success with grassroots social activism to support mothers and families. MomsRising was sparked when Blades learned that mothers face huge pay inequities: while working women on average earn 90% of men’s pay, this falls to 73% for mothers—and all the way to 60% for single mothers. “This is why so many women and children live in poverty,” Blades said. She now focuses her considerable energy on campaigning to improve conditions for the four of every five American women who become mothers. So far 55,000 people have signed on as members of MomsRising, which has produced a book and documentary, The Motherhood Manifesto. The film, released this fall and narrated by Academy Award winner Mary Steenburgen, opens with the story of Kiki Peppard. “Are you married,” was the first question Peppard heard at her first job interview after moving to Pennsylvania. The next was whether she had children—she had two. “We don’t hire women with children,” she was told, “they take too much time off work.” Peppard learned that such “maternal profiling” is perfectly legal, not only in Pennsylvania, but also in 27 other states. She has spent 12 years campaigning to outlaw the practice. She managed to get legislation introduced in the state legislature, but it has languished in committee. “What you’re going to need eventually is a sterilization certificate if you want to get a job in Pennsylvania,” she comments wryly in the documentary. The advent of MomsRising has increased support and momentum for such legislation. But to succeed, a cultural change must occur, with employers seeing flexible work hours as a business asset. Studies have shown that family friendly policies increase not only employee retention and job satisfaction, but also a company’s profitability. Paid maternity leave is core to such policies. Yet, as the film tells us, the U.S. is one of only four countries globally that fail to provide some form of paid maternity leave to working women. The combined GDP of its companions at the bottom of the list—Swaziland, Lesotho and Papua New Guinea—amounts to $10,000, less than a quarter of that of the United States. By contrast, in the U.K., women have the right to six months of paid leave—due to go up to nine months next year—followed by an optional six months of unpaid leave. New fathers get two weeks of paid paternity leave. Vietnam provides four months of fully paid maternity leave, and Nigeria 12 weeks at 50% pay. The U.S. has some catching up to do. Progress depends, though, on legislators realizing such issues are the real “family values” that voters care about. MomsRising plans to convince them of that through its grassroots, bottom-up organizing. “Leaders can’t lead until they have support behind them,” noted Blades. She said that the motherhood site has some work to do before that happens. “MoveOn works on front page issues,” she notes. “I never see these issues on the front page. I want to get them there.”