By PAUL NYHAN
Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner appeared an unlikely revolutionary — a stylish suburban mom and the wife of a Republican state senator — as she grabbed the microphone at the Wayward Coffeehouse in Seattle.
Once the Kirkland mother of two started speaking, she was decidedly zealous, rattling off concerns about paid leave for parents, workplace flexibility and discrimination against mothers.
Rowe-Finkbeiner is one of the forces behind “The Motherhood Manifesto,” a new documentary, and the nation’s latest motherhood rights movement. In living rooms, basements and coffee shops around the country, mothers have hosted hundreds of parties to watch the film based on her book of the same name.
Thursday night, it was Seattle’s turn, again, as 36 women, and two men, jammed into the back of a Greenwood coffeehouse to watch a shortened 45-minute version. Afterward, teachers, gym owners, nannies and stay-at-home moms talked for two hours about flex time, soaring health care costs, baby cooperatives and parenting in the era of the two-income family.
“I think it would be very easy to say, ‘Oh, it is just a lot of latte-sipping moms talking in coffee shops.’ These are issues that affect everyone,” said Cynthia Kemp, 34, a Ballard High School teacher and mother of 5-month-old Elliott. “It wasn’t just a bunch of moms overreacting to minor things.”
The Greenwood screening was the latest discourse in perhaps the most intense debate about motherhood since the early 1970s. Motherhood is on Comedy Central, splashed across the covers of news and gossip magazines and the focus of a never-ending flood of books.
Seattle is part of the debate, with “The Motherhood Manifesto” screenings popping up in Magnolia, Wallingford, Medina, Kirkland, Capitol Hill, the University District, Ballard, Mercer Island and Greenwood.
At these events, the film confronts audiences with its stark view of the choices mothers face today with a stylish mix of cartoons, real-life moms, humorous but dated 1950s TV spots, talking heads and potential solutions.
The two dominant themes are that the United States is one of only four countries among 168 studied by Harvard researchers that doesn’t have paid leave for new mothers and that mothers fare far better in other industrial nations.
“I think as Americans we always feel like we are getting a good shake compared to the rest of the world,” said Shannon Salverda, 34, whose husband works at night, while she teaches school during the day to balance care for their young child.
Not everyone will agree with the film, but it is resonating far beyond traditional feminists and union members.
Salverda was among a largely receptive audience Thursday night of lawyers, gym owners, teachers and business analysts, who had firsthand knowledge of the film’s topics: underpaid child care workers, inflexible work schedules and high-priced health care.
As the film opened, one single mother related how she was turned down for work because she had children. Later, another mom explained how she struggled with the soaring health care costs of her son and daughter.
Essentially, the $180,000 documentary is a mix of art and activism, with proposed solutions at the end of each section.
Not surprisingly, the film is the video arm of a broader movement, MomsRising. Only seven months old, the national movement has 74,000 members and a six-point plan, including paid family leave, greater workplace flexibility and better child care, that it pushes in state capitols, Congress and the White House.
“When this many people are having the same problems at the same time, we have a societal problem that needs to be addressed,” said Rowe-Finkbeiner, 37, who co-wrote “The Motherhood Manifesto” with Joan Blades. “In so many ways, the United States ranks in the bottom of the industrial world.”
The grass-roots effort is growing through a combination of marketing — YouTube trailers, word of mouth and house parties — and savvy promotion. At the MomsRising Web site you can download a step-by-step kit for holding a party, complete with menu suggestions and steps you can take next to highlight issues.
Still, plenty of people don’t think the U.S. system needs such drastic repairs.
Many of the problems the film highlights, the wage gap between men and women for example, are simply the result of choices that women make, not discrimination, said Michelle Bernard, president of the Independent Women’s Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that believes in limited government.
“Sometimes women, after they have kids, are more willing than males, for example, to trade flexibility for lower salary,” Bernard said. “I don’t think they do women any kind of service by not giving them the full facts.”
In many ways, MomsRising is a Seattle-area product. One of the film’s directors, John de Graff, works in Seattle, and Rowe-Finkbeiner lives in Kirkland.
The group even chose The Boeing Co.’s Rosie the Riveter as its icon, though she holds a baby, not a rivet gun.
With a mother, Chris Gregoire, in the governor’s mansion, and two women in the U.S. Senate, the group has targeted Washington for change next year.
To tap this support, the group plans to push state lawmakers to create paid family leave for parents in the coming session.
Supporters of paid leave have tried and failed before, and there is sure to be opposition.
“No one can force the marketplace to place more value on one job than the other,” the Independent Women’s Forum’s Bernard said.
Whatever happens to that effort, the debate over motherhood in America will likely intensify next year.
One mother, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is poised to become speaker of the House of Representatives, and another, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is expected to make a run at the presidency.
Whether they succeed or fail, their presence ensures the motherhood debate will be in Congress, on the campaign trail and in the media in 2007.
“I am totally fired up,” Piper Thornburgh, a Seattle mother said after the screening. “I think this is going to be awesome.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Learn about the documentary, “The Motherhood Manifesto,” including details on screenings, at momsrising.org. Seattle public-television station KCTS was the first to show the documentary, on Thanksgiving Day, and plans to replay it in late March, though it has not set a date.