Rallying The Motherhood Movement

By Carolyn Shea

One of the most tweeted and re-tweeted quotations from last summer’s Netroots Nation conference came from Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner ’91, who gave a keynote speech at the annual meeting of progressive activists.

“The problem isn’t that moms work in this country,” she told the audience. “It’s that this country doesn’t work for moms.”

Rowe-Finkbeiner, wife and parent of two, is on a mission to change that—not only for American moms, but for their children and families as well.

As co-founder and executive director of MomsRising.org, she and her team are mobilizing women across the country to build a more family-friendly America by confronting the obstacles that face them—in the workplace, on the economic front, and in a range of other important areas like health care, childcare and environmental hazards.

Founded in 2006 with just a handful of people, MomsRising has swelled into a “motherhood movement” with more than a million members, hailing from every state in the nation. And it’s making steady gains in influence and policy. Through online and on-the-ground efforts, the multicultural, grassroots organization has collaborated with roughly 150 allied groups to win an impressive number of victories. Just since 2012, its coups have included helping to secure paid sick days in cities across the country, gaining protections for pregnant employees, getting funding for early learning programs, establishing improved nutritional standards in schools, and winning passage of the Consumer Product Safety Protection Act. MomsRising also helped push forward the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill President Obama signed into law in 2009, and increased funding for children’s health insurance programs.

The highly trafficked MomsRising blog—described as “a soapbox where people across our nation can talk politics, policy, and parenting”—boasts more than a thousand bloggers and reaches 3.5 million people. For the last four years, Forbes magazine has named the MomsRising website— which functions as both an action platform and a media outlet—as one of “The 100 Best Websites for Women.”

Rowe-Finkbeiner, who lives in Kirkland, Wash., launched MomsRising with Joan Blades, the co-founder of MoveOn.org. Blades contacted Rowe-Finkbeiner after reading her first book, The F-Word: Feminism in Jeopardy. In 2006, the two women co-authored The Motherhood Manifesto, which calls for a sea change in America’s support for mothers and families. (The book was turned into a 2007 documentary film of the same name, which aired on PBS.)

Once they finished writing the book, they decided to join forces again, this time to work for change. MomsRising.org was the outcome: an online vehicle for grassroots action to advance the voices of women and mothers within the framework of family economic security. The group’s core issues are paid family leave and sick days, flexible work hours, affordable health care, excellent childcare, fair wages for working parents, and environmental health.

MomsRising practices what it preaches. “We are flexible and virtual,” said Rowe-Finkbeiner. The organization’s 26 staff members are scattered around the country and work around their family’s needs. “We’ve found that to be incredibly effective,” she said. “It’s very important for moms to have time to be moms. When they do, it increases the effectiveness of the whole team. We look at outcomes, not whether people are punching a clock. And we have incredible outcomes in terms of policy and bringing moms’ voices forward.”

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner

MomsRising Executive Director Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner ’91 at home in Kirkland, Wash. Her grassroots organization has helped win legislation guaranteeing paid sick leave, protections for pregnant employees and funding for children’s health insurance.

Photo by Shauna Bittle ’98

MomsRising practices what it preaches. “We are flexible and virtual,” said Rowe-Finkbeiner. The organization’s 26 staff members are scattered around the country and work around their family’s needs. “We’ve found that to be incredibly effective,” she said. “It’s very important for moms to have time to be moms. When they do, it increases the effectiveness of the whole team. We look at outcomes, not whether people are punching a clock. And we have incredible outcomes in terms of policy and brining moms’ voices forward.”

Rowe-Finkbeiner has been called a brilliant organizer and a political dynamo. A frequent public speaker and an award-winning writer, she first made her mark in Washington state’s environmental movement, following a path she forged at Evergreen. Her education focused primarily on science, a subject that had interested her since childhood. She was also a part-time coordinator for the college’s Center for Mediation Services, where she said, “I met a lot of people who were working as advocates and I learned a lot about organizing.”

When she graduated, she considered going to law school or medical school, but she needed a job, so in her last quarter, she wrote to every environmental attorney in Seattle offering her services as a paralegal—even though she had no previous experience. One took a chance on her, and she worked with him for a year, “learned a ton,” and then moved on to a career that included serving as the political director of the Washington Conservation Voters and the president of WEAVE (Washington Environmental Alliance for Voter Education).

When her first child was born with an immune-deficiency disorder, she had to leave her job to stay home with him. Fortunately, her husband’s job provided the family with health insurance, and she continued working, from the kitchen table, as an environmental policy and political strategy consultant. She also started researching the status of women like her who stayed at home with their children, but unlike her, did not have a safety net—women like her mother, who had raised her primarily as a single parent. The more she learned about the challenges and inequities they faced and the often tenuous nature of their lives, the more appalled she became. “I saw how quickly you could fall off the economic cliff,” she said.

Her research led her to start writing about what she was discovering, something she continues to spend a lot of time doing. She is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and her pieces have been published in several feminist anthologies and many publications, including The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, and The Nation. She’s been interviewed on numerous TV shows and she recently began hosting “MomsRising Radio with Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner,” a weekly, hour-long radio show that’s broadcast from stations in several cities, including Washington, D.C., and podcasted online.

Rowe-Finkbeiner has a feminist lineage stretching back to her great-grandmother, the first president of Rochester, New York’s Planned Parenthood chapter. Earlier in her career, she believed that her predecessors “had taken care of equality.” When she discovered otherwise, she said she realized “it was time to pick up the baton and get to work on the unfinished business of our grandmothers’ generation.”

By inspiring parents to raise their voices about the issues that matter to them—and giving them the tools and information to do it—she is marshalling a younger generation to continue the fight for equal rights. And bit by bit, law by law, they’re winning.