In the midst of the turmoil in our nation and world over the past few months, one of the developments that gives me hope is the exponential growth in the number of visible responses and ways we can raise our voices or take action to advocate for that in which we believe. Today, there is a protest for every issue, a march for every cause, and a legislator to contact for every concern, and in this politically active zeitgeist, I have taken part in every progressive effort I can. March 8 was A Day Without a Woman, in which women were called upon to basically take the day off so that our value – so often devalued, unrecognized, unpaid, or underpaid – would be starkly obvious. And, as a gender justice activist, I did not participate.
Several insightful and incisive articles have been written about the inaccessibility of A Day Without a Woman to many women who have neither the ability to take a day off work nor males in their lives who can take on domestic and care-giving responsibilities women perform. However, even in efforts to point out how this campaign plays to privilege, there is a demographic that remains practically ignored. Interestingly, this group – single mothers – is perhaps the demographic that most needs a social movement in support of their rights. And yet no visible movement exists on their behalf.
I believe that women’s movements and actions as they exist often play by the rules of a patriarchal society that presumes that women will either forego marriage and motherhood or else parent in a middle-class heterosexual relationship. Vanderbilt scholar C. Melissa Snarr writes in “Women’s Working Poverty: Feminist and Religious Alliances in the Living Wage Campaign” that social activism efforts for issues affecting women rarely offer childcare and often take place on evenings and weekends when children require care. In the case of A Day Without a Woman, the attempt to bring light to the value of women’s unpaid labor such as childcare by calling upon women to refrain from taking part in these activities necessitates that mothers have at their disposal a male partner, relative, or friend who can take over their duties for them. In our society where the nuclear family structure is touted as the ideal, families are privatized and atomized. Community networks are secondary to the private family and are thus not given the cultural and institutional support that would bolster an unmarried mother’s ability to find male fictive kin to offer a day’s worth of caregiving and domestic duties.
Honestly, social movements are effective when participants make demonstrable sacrifices to see their goals become a reality. However, there is a difference between coercive sacrifice and calculated, voluntary sacrifice. Yes, a single mother who sacrifices job security, wages, or time with her children to participate in campaigns for women’s rights can elect not to participate, but is this really much of a choice? Must we either risk the well-being of our families or else knuckle under oppressive social conditions? This, I believe, is coercive sacrifice. I contend that single mothers have more to lose by participation in social movements as they have commonly been shaped in our nation than nearly any other group of women.
There are certainly ways to empower single mothers to make a calculated, voluntary sacrifice, free of coercion, in their participation in social movements. This requires that our movements, campaigns, and actions give recognition to single mothers as a bona fide population with a history of oppression and marginalization – a population worthy of a collective identity and a voice. To do this, we need a restructuring of our community organizing and mobilization efforts. As a template for how to enable voluntary, calculated sacrifice as opposed to coerced sacrifice, I turn to the biblical story of Elijah, the widow, and her son in I Kings 17. In this story, a single mother is asked to make a sacrifice that will risk not only her well-being but that of her child by having compassion on another human being who is suffering from hunger. Facing inevitable starvation and death, the woman apologetically denies Elijah’s request – until Elijah promises her that if she sacrifices her last bit of flour and oil, God will protect her and provide for the material needs of the woman and her son. Certainly her sacrifice required great faith, but the woman’s choice to give what she had to Elijah is an example of a calculated, voluntary sacrifice because she is guaranteed the special protection of God. Elijah issued to her specific promises of provision of the very thing she was sacrificing – food. In other words, the faith her sacrifice required was not blind but instead was informed by the expectation of specific support and recompense for her sacrifice and risk.
In our movements for women’s rights, we have replicated the devaluing of and blindness to single mothers. We have discarded them, ignored them, and given them every reason to feel as though they do not matter. These women are direly affected by every problematic policy, inequality, and injustice in our society, including racism, the wage gap, immigration laws, welfare reform, and gender-based violence, and we have effectively cut them off from resources and networks of support by privileging the nuclear family structure in our social activism. In such a way, we reproduce the norms generated by the patriarchy we seek to deconstruct. Single mothers are the canaries of our gender rights struggles, only we have been repeatedly sacrificing them while never reading the significance of their death. The signs of their struggle testify not merely to male privilege but to the problematic privileging of the nuclear family, which, though seemingly innocuous, displays its harmful undercurrents in that society’s privileging of this ideal occurs simultaneously with the erosion of community resources, dissolving strong community networks and extended and fictive kin support systems.
If we truly want to check our privilege, we must centralize the rights of single mothers and their children, for in their empowerment lies a true overturning of patriarchy. This can only occur when our activism itself gives priority to meeting the needs of single mothers, making possible their participation in these efforts. We must ensure the availability of legal advocacy, solidarity amongst movement participants, and access to community services that support the material and emotional well-being of women whose participation in activism may endanger the security and stability of their families. Participation will include sacrifice and requires faith that our efforts will be worth the risk involved, but we must do better to follow in the steps of Elijah and ensure that the women and children we have pushed to the periphery will be protected to the best of our abilities as they make their way to the center of our work for liberation.