In the end, after months of waffling, I violated my principles and went to the Million Mom March for gun control–make that “common-sense gun control.” I’ve never liked maternalist politics: It relies on an image of women as basically apolitical homebodies, roused from the stove only by a threat to the nest and the nestlings. Maternalism takes the ancient sexist categories that exclude women from the public realm and uses them to win women a hearing there–children, it is generally conceded, are the one subject about which women know a thing or two–but it leaves the categories untouched. Under the rubric of maternalism, women can fight for kids but not for themselves. Thus there was no mention at the march of the thousands of women killed and injured each year with guns, or the connections, noted by Susan Faludi in Newsweek, between far-right militias and anti-choice zealotry. Meanwhile, maternalism subtly shifts responsibility away from men, which in the case of guns seems particularly unwarranted: The gun culture is a highly masculine preserve, and so is most gun violence–drive-by shootings, mass murders by school kids, racist killing sprees, domestic murder-suicides. Who leaves those loaded guns around for kids to play with, anyway? Shouldn’t it have been a Million Dad March?
The march has been portrayed as a soccer mom extravaganza, and certainly there were lots of nonpoor white women–although the ones I knew, not to mention myself, seem to have missed out on the McMansion and minivan that “white women” are so often gifted with in the media. The afternoon had a family-holiday feel, like a monster playground fair–there were lots of strollers and double strollers, and cheerful, slightly self-parodic evocations of middle-class maternity like the chant “Time Out Chair/for Wayne LaPierre” (executive vice president of the NRA). Best mass-produced sticker: “Actually, guns do kill people”; best handmade sign: “I’m here because my husband is an idiot.” Raffi, the preschooler’s answer to Pete Seeger, had everyone singing “This Little Light of Mine.”
Not surprisingly, all this sweetness and light made Camille Paglia blow her last remaining gasket in Salon: “The average citizen doesn’t want national policy determined by packs of weeping women led by a shrill dimwitted talk show host (Hillary sycophant Rosie O’Donnell)”–or, as she is known to the NRA, Tokyo Rosie. Actually, poll after poll shows the average citizen is wildly in favor of the modest measures supported by the moms–registering handguns and licensing owners, background checks at gun shows and so on.
Still, it was certainly true that the march doubled as a Democratic Party rally–just as my reluctant companion, the Last Marxist, had predicted long before it was widely publicized that founding march organizer Donna Dees-Thomases is the sister-in-law of Hillary Clinton’s close friend Susan Thomases. Along with O’Donnell, Reese Witherspoon, Anna Quindlen, Sarah Brady and other luminaries, a bevy of Democratic politicians took the podium: Maryland’s Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend; Representative Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed and son grievously injured by a gunman on the Long Island Rail Road; Bobby Rush, the Congressman and former Black Panther whose son was murdered last year in Chicago. The President appeared via video; Tipper and Hillary worked the crowds. You would never know that the Democratic Party purposely seeks out pro-gun candidates to run in conservative districts or that it was a powerful Democratic Congressman, Michigan’s John Dingell, who killed last year’s bill calling for seventy-two-hour waiting periods on gun show purchases. With women supporting gun control by 75 percent to men’s 50 percent, Al Gore certainly isn’t going to remind them.
The only speaker I heard who related gun violence to poverty and racism was Susan Sarandon, but all you had to do was look around and the connection was obvious. Black and Hispanic parents of murdered kids were everywhere–alone, with family members, or representing inner-city support groups, which typically have dozens of members. Some displayed memorial quilts bearing the faces of their dead children; one mother had mounted her poem mourning her dead son on a pole. I had a taste of what a fundamentally creepy job reporting is as I asked parents for their stories–the son about to go to college who was killed with a Saturday Night Special because his friend went out with someone’s former girlfriend; the son who left the house and was dead fifteen minutes later, reason unknown, killer never found. These are the kids the NRA discounts in racist fashion as not really children, not really innocent, drug users and gangbangers. In other words: Not only do guns not kill people, they don’t kill people.
Listening to these tragic stories of waste and folly, I saw the other side of maternalist politics: its ability to cut through flimflam and get to the heart of an issue. After all, the decades of good-government lobbying for gun control have achieved very little: Of the dozens of bills introduced in Congress after Columbine last year, not one passed. Maybe the passion of wounded ordinary people is what’s needed; maybe the image of the bereaved and angry mother is the only one weighty enough to counterbalance that of the male hunter and patriot deployed so successfully by the NRA.
The sad thing, though, is that the Million Mom March brought so many people together–three-quarters of a million on the Mall and thousands of others at local rallies around the country–and under the guise of empowering them, disempowered them. Write your Representatives, urged speaker after speaker. Remember in November. Vote. But beyond scribbling a postcard–pink-and-white ones were thoughtfully provided–and pulling a lever six months from now, no one suggested anything resembling activism: picketing gun stores and gun shows, organizing with other parents to chuck the NRA’s Eddie Eagle “gun safety” programs out of your kid’s school or with other students to force your college to divest from the gun industry. It will take more than once-a-year gestures, whether marching or voting, to turn Mom power into people power.