“You don’t stop being a parent when your child dies,” Lucia McBath, one of the Mothers of the Movement said at the Democratic National Convention last night. “I am still Jordan Davis’s mother. His life ended the day he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.”
McBath, along with six other women whose children had been killed in racially motivated crimes, including Geneva Reed-Veal, Sandra Bland’s mother, and Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, came to speak, and to endorse Hillary Clinton, as part of a reluctant and mournful group. The mothers of dead children, young black men and women, whose deaths prompted protests across America, asked for a future where “police officers and communities of color work together”; a future where children like theirs would live to adulthood. Clinton, the Mothers of the Movement emphasized, not only listened to them, but she empathized with their grief; she understood them as only another mother could.
The image of a group of women joined only by the deaths of their children, wearing large red roses and asking for justice was moving. But what was most striking about the Mothers of the Movement was their compassion and kindness in the face of their tragedies. It was a stark contrast to the Republican National Convention where, during the first night, the Trump campaign had also relied on the narratives of grieving mothers to lay out domestic policy. But where the Mothers of the Movement spoke of a brighter future, the mothers featured on the RNC’s stage demanded that Clinton be locked up and a border wall be built to keep out dangerous immigrants. “I blame Hillary Clinton, personally,” Pat Smith, mother of Sean Smith, a Foreign Service employee who died in Benghazi, told Republican delegates. “Hillary for prison!” she added.
Smith, like the other grieving mothers of that first night of the RNC (two women whose children had been killed by undocumented workers) were raw and angry. They sought revenge and wanted to enact that revenge on Clinton. “Lock her up,” the crowd chanted during their speeches, a kind of Greek chorus echoing the anger.
The angry mothers of the RNC were a stark contrast to last night’s speech by Mothers of the Movement, as well as the representation of motherhood and the often invisible labor—both emotional and physical—of women that underpinned last night’s DNC speeches. That contrast was particularly profound when Sybrina Fulton told the crowd, “This isn’t about being politically correct. It’s about protecting our children.”
The phrase “politically correct” rang familiar; along with ISIS, terrorism, and immigration, it was one of the themes that underpinned the RNC, treated on par with terrorism. Both seemed to represent lurking threats to freedom; criticism was akin to censorship, and Donald Trump was the great liberator, speaking his mind and freeing his followers from the shackles of political correctness. At the RNC, “political correctness” was a bludgeon. At the DNC, spoken by Fulton, it was a means of acknowledging grief and entering that grief—gendered and racial and as messy as it is—into the public discourse. There was, too, a demand that the invisible work of women finally be rendered visible; a demand that traditionally private work of loss be shared and a demand that we acknowledge that the labor of mothering has many iterations (“I am still Jordan Davis’ mother”).
That theme ran throughout last night’s speeches, picked up by Planned Parenthood Federation of America president Cecile Richards, who emphasized both paid parental leave and equal pay. “Women,” Richards said, “want their daughters to be paid as much as their sons.” America Ferrera spoke, too, as the daughter of immigrants, and California senator Barbara Boxer reiterated the bonds of family, pointing out that she and Clinton shared a family tree. Boxer’s speech earned an “oy” from Andrew Sullivan as he live-blogged last night’s events. He wrote:
I understand why we’re getting this massive wave of female power and eloquence. It’s worth noting, however, that Clinton’s major problem right now is with white working class men. I cannot see how Barbara Boxer will win them over in an Oscar dress.
It was an off-the-cuff remark that seemed to miss the point of last night entirely. Simply: it wasn’t designed for men, even those with whom Clinton is polling poorly. (She is currently polling at 20 percent among white men without a college degree, nine points lower than Barack Obama did in 2012.) And certainly, Boxer’s dress was unlikely to win anyone over, nor was it meant to. Moreover, last night wasn’t just about “female power,” it was about rewriting a narrative of national politics that has generally ignored the labor of women. Sure, there’s always been nods to the dignity of motherhood and family values, but they’ve been empty in their approach, generally spoken by men who just really love their own moms.
There’s been little room for the reality of motherhood, or of parenting, generally. Republicans might love a particular ideal of motherhood (straight women who are a part of two-parent heterosexual households) but they’ve never been up for a conversation about maternity leave or the rising costs of daycare or medical care. It’s worth noting, too, that Democrats traditionally lose married white women with children, a group that Trump’s nomination has put in play.
And the narrative of Clinton’s life recounted last night was appealing because it paid witness to the invisible work that’s always been expected of women. Even Bill Clinton understood the profundity of that story on a national political stage. During his speech, he emphasized that work, in education and advocacy, which she has done her entire life. He coupled that with motherhood and going into labor, almost effortlessly joining Hillary’s water breaking with her behind-the-scenes public service. The invisible work, Bill insisted, was where the authentic Hillary was always found:
This is a really important point for you to take out of this convention. If you believe in making change from the bottom up, if you believe the measure of change is how many people’s lives are better, you know it’s hard and some people think it’s boring. Speeches like this are fun.
Actually doing the work is hard. So people say, well, we need to change. She’s been around a long time, she sure has, and she’s sure been worth every single year she’s put into making people’s lives better.
The contrast was an important one. Bill Clinton acknowledged that the prestige and acclaim were in public speeches, the kind given by him and men like him; the “change,” however, was done on the ground, in the kind of work left to women like Hillary. The kind of work that’s purposefully unseen. Where the Republican National Convention painted Trump and his children as billionaires of the people—a family with a true work ethic who earned their respect by working with “people with PhDs in common sense,” as Donald Trump Jr. said—the DNC depicted a Clinton who has always been laboring. Like most women, she has done the bulk of it in the shadows.
The evening’s speeches depicted a narrative derived, of course, from the moral authority of motherhood, and it didn’t particularly care to parse the problems of that trope. But it didn’t really need to, either: its purpose was simply to exist, to acknowledge that Clinton understood the labor of women, particularly of mothers, because she too had performed it her entire life. The irony of a night spent building that story and giving that work a prominent place in the public sphere was that it was incredibly short-lived: today, newspapers plastered images of Bill Clinton and Bernie Sanders on their covers. The labor of women went back to the shadows.