Before 2016, conversations at school pickup time in my affluent suburb nearly always revolved around kids’ activities and home remodeling. We stayed away from political topics mostly; it seemed impolite to provoke a fellow PTO member.1 If anyone temporarily put up something as unaesthetic as a lawn sign amongst their manicured shrubs, it said something like, “Chatham Lacrosse,” or “Congratulations Logan! Rutgers Class of 2020.”
But during the week of the 2016 presidential election, new lawn signs suddenly sprouted along our sleepy one-road, four-block “downtown.” “Chatham Moms for Hillary” faced off against “Chatham Moms for Trump.” Chatham’s traditional decorum became another victim of that crazy political cycle.
For months after the election, I was afraid to talk about it much with people I knew in my neighborhood. Chatham voted for Hillary by a substantial margin, which was meaningful in a district that has more registered Republicans than Democrats. But still, a whole bunch had voted for Trump. Were they people I knew? What did they mean by that vote? About half of the families on my block are foreign nationals or immigrants, drawn to the area by jobs in pharmaceuticals and engineering and fantastic public schools. What were those Trump voters’ intentions toward my neighbors? Toward my interracial family? It was unnerving.
I may have been shy about politics locally, but I was determined to do something, and it was obvious what needed doing: we still had a Republican representative who repeatedly failed to stand up to the bullies in his party on behalf of the moderates he claimed to represent. Rodney Frelinghuysen had to go, and we needed a Democrat to represent us instead. I researched the declared Democratic candidates, and watched a candidates’ debate sponsored by NJ 11th for Change, a non-partisan activist organization organized to seek out a new representative who will stand for New Jersey.
I was proud of the strong slate of Democratic candidates eager and willing to serve in my district. I hope all of them will enter or continue public service. Among them, though, my choice was clear: I could see that Mikie Sherrill was a candidate who shared my values, had tremendous personal integrity, a positive spirit, great intelligence, and the crucial skill of connecting and working with all kinds of people to get a mission accomplished. This was someone who I would not just vote for and support, but go out and knock on doors to tell people how great I think she is.
I carried a sign for Mikie at the Women’s March in Morristown in February 2017, and it was there that I was introduced to Chatham Moms for Change. Outraged women from my community had gotten together after the election and vowed to do something. They were marching behind their banner at the Women’s March and discussing which candidate they would support.
I listened to a casual conversation about the favored candidate. Mikie Sherrill served as a helicopter pilot in the Navy for nearly a decade, and then joined the federal prosecutor’s office, working both as a prosecutor and as the coordinator of a program that helped former prisoners successfully reenter their communities. She has a bachelor’s degree from the Naval Academy and a law degree from Georgetown. So what qualifications were we discussing at the Women’s March?
“Who is Mikie? She’s a mom from Montclair. She has 4 kids.” The person who asked nodded approvingly. In a group like Chatham Moms for Change, we think of “moms” as the people who get stuff done. We know plenty of mom-doctors and mom-lawyers, some of them employed and some currently at home with kids. We think that Mikie’s state, national, and international experience with our justice system and our military are stellar qualities for a candidate.
But we also know the value of the community members we mostly call “moms,” who volunteer untold numbers of hours to build a safe, nurturing, and enriching environment for our families. They design PTO budgets and meet fundraising goals with aplomb while running multi-prong “Cougar Cubs for Kindness” campaigns in the district’s elementary and middle schools; mentor kids in robotics and teach multicultural after-school enrichment classes; or, like Mikie, coach their kids’ sports teams. When we described Mikie as “a mom” at the Women’s March, we were referring to a constellation of qualities that we believe would make someone an effective and ethical public servant.
As I work with Chatham Moms for Change, I often think of the “civic housekeeping” movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.2 In the United States, as in Latin America and Europe, middle-class women began to challenge the division between a masculine “public sphere” and a feminine “private sphere.” They declared that their expertise in homemaking contained relevant skills for the public sphere: keeping a home clean and children healthy translated into demanding improved sewage systems, a clean water and milk supply, and health regulations on work conditions in factories. Nineteenth-century women’s clubs met for self-study, community service, and civil rights activism.
In the Progressive Era, an even greater proportion of women became involved in the public arena, in more different ways. Some initiated the women’s suffrage movement, fighting for women’s direct involvement in political decision-making and, among other things, effectively pressuring lawmakers into public health reforms that substantially reduced child mortality. Others focused on reforms such as services for the urban poor, improvements to public education, provision of maternity care, and anti-lynching campaigns. All were convinced that women’s involvement would improve civil society.
Even at the time, media observers believed they were witnessing a world-changing movement. The Atlantic Monthly described the 1904 General Federation of Women’s Clubs annual convention: “The spectacle of 275,000 women splendidly organized, armed with leisure and opportunity, and animated by a passion for reform assumes the distinction of a ‘social force.’”3
Today, suburban moms are a similar social force, rallying behind a dramatic wave of women candidates. Chatham Moms for Change has declared, in its very name, its belief that mothers (and mothers’ allies – you don’t have to be a mother to join) need to play a central role in our current political moment. It has endorsed a slate of local and national Democratic candidates, mostly women, who its members believe will bring the kinds of changes we need to preserve our civil society and further social justice and social cohesion at a time when Trump and his allies on the far right seem intent on tearing civil society down. We, and other women like us across New Jersey, are out there running for office, running campaigns, and knocking on doors.
As a historian, I am aware of the imperfections and profound blind spots of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century women’s political and social movements. They were mostly racially segregated; often condescending toward immigrants; and all too often embraced eugenics, among other shortcomings. For many years, I have hesitated to become politically involved, knowing that my children’s and grandchildren’s generations, with the benefit of hindsight, will critique the shortcomings of my cohort. I also wondered if it was really my time to claim the public stage, given all the cogent critiques of white, middle-class privilege.
And of course, as was clear in our warring “mom” lawn signs on election day 2016, being a suburban middle-class mom does not, in itself, automatically mean that a person will have progressive sensibilities. College-educated women, unlike their male counterparts, strongly preferred Clinton over Trump, and in canvassing my district I have seen many examples of women Democrats married to Republican men. Liberal-leaning women who, like myself, have been quiescent are now particularly visible because we have become dramatically more politically active. But plenty of middle-class suburban moms are Trump supporters, too. We may share a concern for our homes and families, but we do not universally agree that America’s children are all, in an important sense, “our children,” deserving of strong support from civil society. That is a progressive value from the Progressive Era, and plenty of conservative women then and now have not embraced it.
While I keep all those critiques in mind, after Trump’s election, I no longer hesitate to organize with my fellow (sororal?) liberal suburban moms to do what we can to save our country. As Trevor Noah observed about the Parkland shooting survivors who are campaigning for gun regulation, it is time to use our privilege to change the world for the better.
- PTO stands for Parent Teacher Organization (the equivalent of a PTA, or Parent Teacher Association). Return to text.
- Ok, I take back what I said in a previous post -– in this context, you can call me “mom.” Return to text.
- Quoted in Patrick Wilkinson, “The Selfless and the Helpless: Maternalist Origins of the U.S. Welfare State,” Feminist Studies 25, no. 3 (Autumn, 1999), 571-597, 574. Return to text.