Justice For Mothers

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by Maxine Phillips

When Julia Ward Howe, best known as author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," published a call for a national Mother's Day for Peace, she wanted all women to come together to mourn their losses in the Civil War and work to end war. During that war and after, Ann Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia organized Appalachian women into what were called Mothers’ Day Work Clubs, which aimed to improve health and other conditions in their communities and give aid to victims from both sides of the war. It was her daughter Anna, in homage to her mother, who persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to declare a national Mother's Day in 1914.

That history is known to few today, and probably wasn't known to a young woman I saw at this year's May Day rally in New York City. She carried a Mexican flag and a sign saying "I March for my MAMA because she crossed the Border." As I snapped a photo, my thoughts went to my own mother, who traveled from Italy with her mother and two siblings to seek a better life. I, too, was there because my mother had crossed a border.

And then my thoughts went to a mother I'd never met. This woman had sent her teenage daughter north to safety after the girl had been threatened by gang members in Honduras. I'd met the daughter--let's call her Ana--at a clinic run by the New Sanctuary Coalition in New York City when she came for help in filling out the form for asylum seekers. Where is your mother? our team asked. "She thought she couldn't survive the trip," Ana said, as she described her own ordeal walking on dusty roads through Guatemala and Mexico; having money extorted on every bus ride; and, finally, fording the Rio Grande only to be picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

Her mother had fled to a village with no phone service, and Ana could only hope she was safe.  A neighbor's child had been decapitated by the gang. At this point, Ana, who a few minutes before had been laughing with the interpreter as she tried to pronounce some English words, broke into sobs.

Mother's Day may be the third-biggest card-sending holiday of the year and one of the most lucrative bonanzas for the floral industry ($1.9 billion worth of cut flowers, most cut by very low-wage labor in other countries), but the bleak conditions of war, racial hatred, and poverty that spurred the first organizers of the holiday haven't disappeared. They've only changed, as chattel slavery has given way to mass incarceration and immigrants must live in a shadowy underground of fear.

Eight of every ten women behind bars in the United States are mothers. Some 50% have not been convicted of a crime but are in jail because they can't make cash bail. Separation from their families has devastating effects that last for years after the charges have been dropped, as they often are. This year, a campaign under the slogan No More Money Bail is raising money in the lead-up to Mother's Day for a "Mama's Bail Out Day."

As we remember our own mothers, let's remember our links to the immigrant mothers who have made incalculable sacrifices to send their children to safety, the mothers in jail, the mothers working double shifts to feed their children, to all those who are doing the best they can and more.

Maxine Phillips is a co-convener of the Religion and Socialism Working Group of the Democratic Socialists of America.