The Uvalde, Tex., elementary school mass shooting had an unexpected result. Late last month, Congress passed and President Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, ending a 30-year stalemate on gun-control legislation. The law expands background checks for gun purchasers younger than 21 and promises $13 billion in federal funding for improvements to mental health services and safety measures in schools.
Mothers have been leaders in advancing such gun legislation. Research on social movements finds that activists emphasize certain qualifications to assert political standing and attract attention to their positions. Motherhood is one such qualification. By emphasizing their gendered expertise and moral authority as mothers, activists have asserted they are especially worthy of being heard. But activists use motherhood differently according to their ideological and social positions — as I found when I examined the positions of gun regulation advocate Shannon Watts and former NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch, both of whom invoke their status as mothers in arguing for their points of view.
Women have long leveraged motherhood as a source of political legitimacy and power. Feminist scholars define motherhood as the active responsibility of child-rearing and use the term “care work” to refer to mothers’ unpaid efforts to meet children’s physical and emotional needs. Activists emphasize motherhood to paint their political efforts — which otherwise might be seen as unwomanly — as an extension of this care work. By implying or openly asserting that they’re acting on behalf of their own and others’ children, they position themselves as worthy of being heard on such issues as nuclear weapons, racial justice and police violence, education, and guns.
But what does it mean to be a mother in politics?
Notably, women who lack resources have drawn on motherhood as a source of political power while resisting stereotypes about what it means to be a “good mother.” Many Black women have turned motherhood into a platform to oppose the violence imposed on their children and communities. Sociologist Nancy Naples refers to this as the practice of activist mothering, in which the care work socially assigned to mothers is extended to include advocating on behalf of a marginalized community. For instance, after the Uvalde tragedy, a group of Latina mothers formed Fierce Madres to object not just to the discredited police response to the shooting but also to the racism and poverty endured by the Latino-dominated town. As have many others, they’re using motherhood as a form of capital to negotiate with authorities and mobilize support.
Motherhood in the gun debate
Both Watts and Loesch — two activists on different sides of the gun-control debate — used motherhood as a source of political standing. The two rose to prominence after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012.
Watts founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. She has described herself as a stay-at-home mom of five who was pulled into activism by her concern as a mother — which, she says, doesn’t stop with her own kids, as she advocates for policies that will protect “our communities … our children.”
Loesch was until recently a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association. Loesch argues that concern as a mother drives her activism, since no one can protect a child better than their mother, especially one who is armed and capable.
To better understand their approaches, I investigated how the two talk about motherhood. I collected their interviews with various media outlets published between Jan. 1, 2013, and March 1, 2017, as well as their personalized biographies on Twitter, LinkedIn, the Premiere Speakers Bureau website and organizational sites, amounting to 68 documents in all. I conducted a content analysis, using the qualitative analysis software Atlas.ti, by manually coding each document for the prevalence of motherhood claims and different portrayals of motherhood.
Both Watts and Loesch argue that their identities as mothers inform their position on guns — but they construct motherhood differently and reach opposite conclusions.
Watts treats motherhood as a platform that extends care to all children, arguing that a society should protect all children from gun violence. Loesch emphasizes her mothering responsibilities to her own children, arguing that mothers have the right to defend their children as they see fit.
Watts’s and Loesch’s different visions of motherhood, ostensibly nonpolitical, carry implicit sets of political ideas and values. In this sample, Watts portrayed motherhood as a communal act in 35 percent of the documents, compared with only 9 percent for Loesch. Watts’s portrayal of motherhood as a communal act informs her position on guns and reflects a broader adherence to social policies often associated with the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, Loesch’s contention that motherhood is an individual right and responsibility aligns with her commitment to libertarian politics.
By emphasizing responsibilities socially imposed on mothers, both activists speak as if they are above partisan politics. But the different conceptions of motherhood bring with them — or grow from — very different political visions.
This distinction helps explain the range of reactions to tragedies such as Uvalde. While many grieve the loss of innocent lives, this only transfers to a political commitment to protecting “our children” for some, such as Watts. For others, like Loesch, it’s a reminder of the need to protect one’s own children.
Implications for gun legislation
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act appears to favor Watts’s take on motherhood, delivering several of the policy measures that Moms Demand Action has been advocating for, including expanded background checks and disarming those convicted of intimate-partner abuse. This part of the law elevates collective safety over individual rights to bear arms. While some Republicans opposed the bill, this position appealed to a significant handful.
But different political ideologies promote different ideas of motherhood, and of parenthood more broadly — which suggests less common ground for bipartisan cooperation. The power or efficacy of motherhood claims will vary according to different audiences’ perceptions about what it means to be a mother. The political right will probably continue to use motherhood to mobilize and appeal to audiences that focus on individual rights, while the left will counter with a more collectivist take. This time, the question of “Whose children are they?” — which divides the political left and right — won a shared commitment to protecting “our children.” Will that last?
Kaylin Bourdon (@KaylinBourdon) is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of California at Irvine and a graduate student fellow at the Jack W. Peltason Center for the Study of Democracy.
Note: Updated Oct. 5, 2023.