Mother’s Day

Family Values: Women and kids were a powerful presence at the February 15 antiwar rally near the U.N.Photo: AP/Wide World

Some had been attending antiwar vigils in Pleasantville or Pelham for months. Others threw pre-demonstration brunches in their Brooklyn homes, cooking scrambled eggs for like-minded neighbors before jumping on the crowded subway to midtown. And one woke up in Yonkers on Saturday morning nagged by her civic conscience, quickly decided that her 3-year-old’s earache wasn’t all that bad, calculated that she could catch the second half of her niece’s piano recital on the Upper West Side—and so dashed off toward the United Nations to join the rally against war with Iraq and, more important, to give her 10-year-old son a firsthand lesson about democracy in action.

“We’re studying the Bill of Rights right now,” says Joanna Lodin, a 42-year-old Westchester actor and mother who home-schools her three sons, “so I felt we had a real responsibility to come to the rally and use our rights in a democracy. Even though I don’t like giant crowds.”

Two things have so far defined the first major peace movement of the twenty-first century. One is a deft use of technology: Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, it took a mere five weeks of planning to draw hundreds of thousands of people to within shouting, if not viewing, distance of the U.N. on the same day that crowds thronged more picturesque stretches of 600 cities from Melbourne to London.

What was more intriguing, though, about the scene on First and Second and Third Avenues last week was the central presence of middle-aged, upwardly mobile women—the people stereotyped in the 2000 presidential campaign as “soccer moms,” who, in New York, don’t necessarily live in the suburbs or own SUVs. These were the women who stuck out on the midtown streets on February 15—the shrewd grown-ups like Tania Phillips, a 35-year-old elementary-school teacher. She was striding down East 51st Street as the rally broke up when she was asked how the protest had gone. “Well,” Phillips said, “I haven’t seen the media yet.”

“For women, security isn’t just the orange alert,” says Congresswoman Nita Lowery, “but also economic security, educational security, the environment.”

You didn’t hear these women screaming slogans. What you noticed was them bending down, coolly attempting to explain to their kids the meaning of that sign saying george bush is an oil whore. No matter when the United States invades Iraq, or how long the war lasts, these newly energized women are going to be the key to how the Republicans or Democrats wage the peace. Because soccer moms were crucial to Bill Clinton’s elections, and they were the swing voters the Democrats alienated in the election last November.

Last week, three days after thousands of earnest, mainstream Americans politely took to the streets to show their opposition to attacking Iraq, Bush responded with a dismissiveness so cold it seemed he wanted to drive swing voters back into the arms of Democrats. “Size of protest—it’s like deciding, well, I’m going to decide policy based upon a focus group,” Bush said.

True—it’s Karl Rove’s job to listen to focus groups. But by not even acknowledging the good intentions of many war dissenters, Bush plays into the hands of his worst political enemies, the people who deride him as arrogant. For the women who joked that George H. W. Bush reminded them of their first husband, W. is summoning an equally unpleasant memory: the boss who just couldn’t take them seriously as executive material.

Nationally, women are vastly more ambivalent than men about an invasion of Iraq: A mid-February Gallup Poll showed 55 percent of women in favor, versus 72 percent of men. Locally, there’s opposition, with a February 10 Marist College poll rejecting George Bush’s handling of Iraq by 49 to 42 (men barely approved, 47 to 43).

The substance and style of Bush’s case for war have been particularly grating to women—especially the president’s willingness to see the United States go it alone and his contempt for working with the United Nations. “Women have a great respect for the U.N. and multilateralism,” says Janet Jakobsen, director of Barnard College’s Center for Research on Women. “The U.N. has been a place for great conflict—over, for example, reproductive rights. But on other issues, such as women’s health, the U.N. has been a place for women to come together across the world and make some great strides.”

Which hints at a political opening beyond the impending war. Moderate voters, many of them women, define “security” in broader terms than whether the U.S. is safe from terrorists. “I met with 70 very anxious mothers last week in my district, women in their thirties and forties,” says Democratic congresswoman Nita Lowey, who represents Westchester, “and for them, security isn’t just the orange alert but also economic security, educational security, the environment.”

An adviser to the presidential campaign of John Kerry says he’s picked up the same message. “Women consistently rank terrorism and security issues after jobs, health care, and education,” the adviser says. “The Democrat who wins in 2004 is going to be the one who weaves security into one package, because if you just attack Bush, it comes across as unpatriotic.”

Indeed, Howard Dean’s campaign manager noted recently that 70 percent of the résumés he was getting for campaign-staff jobs were from women; Dean is, of course, the only unapologetically antiwar candidate in the field.

“The party is flailing like a novice swimmer,” says Democratic Party consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “But if it’s going to recover, the soccer moms are optimal target No. 1.” And once the invasion starts, those women will be listening even more intently.

Mother’s Day