By Jeremy Deaton
Hundreds of protestors, mostly mothers and their children, took to Capitol Hill Wednesday to call on lawmakers to address air pollution and climate change. The gathering — dubbed a “play-in” — featured remarks by several advocates, journalists and members of Congress who are also mothers, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Telemundo correspondent Vanessa Hauc and native rights activist Casey Camp-Horinek.
This week’s rally, organized by Moms Clean Air Force, belongs to a long tradition of maternal activism in the United States, one that includes peacemakers, prohibitionists and suffragettes. Generations of women have taken to the streets to protect their children, and our present moment is no exception, as mothers urge policymakers to tackle climate change, an issue with profound implications for their daughters and sons.
“We are united together to protect these babies that are around here, around our feet as we speak,” Heather McTeer Toney, a senior advisor for Moms Clean Air Force and a former regional Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, said in a speech.
The rally drew several prominent climate advocates, including Kristin Mink, the teacher and mother who confronted former EPA chief Scott Pruitt at a Washington, DC restaurant. “Listen, I don’t know why anyone would not care deeply about this issue,” Mink said. “This is not a partisan issue. This is not about politics. This is about the survival of the species. This is about our Earth. This is about our children and the kind of lives that they are going to have and that their children are going to have.”
In her encounter with Pruitt, Mink said, “I just wanted to urge you to resign because of what you are doing to the environment in our country,” adding, “We deserve to have somebody at the EPA who actually does protect our environment, somebody who believes in climate change and takes it seriously for the benefit of all of us, including our children.” Pruitt, who consistently undermined the EPA’s mission to limit carbon pollution, stepped down from his role at the agency a few days later.
Mink spoke about meeting Pruitt at the rally. “When I walked up to EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and told him to resign, I didn’t actually think he would do it,” she said. “We took down the EPA administrator, and we didn’t need Congress or the president to help us.” Mink noted that Pruitt’s successor, Andrew Wheeler, would continue to pursue a deregulatory agenda, adding, “The endless pattern of this administration favoring corporate interests over real people won’t end unless we all vote.”
Historically, mothers have had a profound impact on public policy. Mother’s Against Drunk Driving was created in 1983 after its founder, Candace Lightner, lost her daughter to a drunk driving accident. The group successfully campaigned to raise the drinking age and to lower the legal limit for blood alcohol while driving, among other measures.
Similarly, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union fought for the prohibition of alcohol, a fight that onetime president Frances Willard described as “a war of mothers and daughters.” Under Willard’s leadership, the organization also pushed for women’s suffrage, believing that women must secure the right to vote to act as “citizen-mothers.”
Mothers have played such an important role in pushing for progress that they even earned their own holiday. During and after the Civil War, West Virginia activist Ann Jarvis organized mothers to feed, clothe and nurse both Union and Confederate soldiers. After the war ended, she gathered veterans from both sides of the conflict to foster unity and encourage reconciliation.
After Jarvis died, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, lobbied the federal government to designate a new holiday to honor the work of mothers on behalf of their children. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first national Mother’s Day.
“I’m glad to be here to be with so many people who are standing together in solidarity against polluted air,” Misti O’Quinn, director of outreach and community engagement for Breath is Lyfe, said to those assembled. O’Quinn spoke about her children struggling with asthma, a condition worsened by pollution. “Knowing that there is a building full of people lining their pockets, and my children are paying the price? I have a problem with that,” she said.
“If what you see happening now isn’t what you want, then you need to get involved,” said Keri Bresaw, a mother from Henniker, New Hampshire. “I think we model behavior for our children, and by bringing my kids here to Washington, DC to show them that I can use my voice to stand up for things that I believe in, I’m hopefully planting some seeds for them to also decide to do the same.”
Ask Americans why they think it’s important to tackle climate change, and the leading response is to “provide a better life for our children and grandchildren.” No other answer comes close, and to a certain extent, that makes sense. It will take years for today’s carbon emissions to take full effect. If humans stopped polluting today, temperatures would continue to rise for another 40 years. Any effort made to limit the rise in temperature will take decades to bear fruit, meaning the fight to curb climate change, ultimately, is an altruistic one. It is the fight to protect the next generation.
“The climate system has a memory, and if we don’t act soon, we’re going to feel the effects for hundreds of years. The sooner we act, the better it’s going to be for future generations,” said Michelle Irizarry, a mother from Orlando, Florida. “I think action is the solution to despair and depression.”
Mink stressed the importance of the midterm election. “Everyone who cares about their children, everyone who cares about their future and our future needs to get to the polls,” she said. “Voting is our final way to have our voice heard. It is required.”
Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy. Owen Agnew and Josh Landis contributed to this report.