Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner mobilizes moms to fight for their rights
As co-founder of MomsRising.org, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner of Kirkland has amassed an army of 1.3 million members willing to rally, jawbone, lobby and otherwise fight for the rights of mothers and families. The group has taken an active role in promoting everything from paid family leave to universal health care and better wages for women.
photographed by Ellen M. Banner
A CROWD HAS gathered expectantly on a hot summer afternoon in Seattle's Pratt Park. Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner is standing off to the side, her hair freshly styled, a crumpled sheaf of handwritten notes in her hand. In a few moments she will take the stage, standing before several thousand union workers and physicians, seasoned activists and curious onlookers, all of whom are eager to march for health-care reform.
It's a far cry from the kitchen table in Kirkland where Rowe-Finkbeiner, 40, first began to type out her ideas asserting that America's family policies are backward. Now 3,500 people are amassed before her, some who have traveled across the state, applauding as the mother of two shouts into the microphone that, compared with toilet-training a 2-year-old, taking on insurance-industry lobbyists is no big deal.
She tells a story about her son (adding that she rarely shares such personal information in public), describing how his childhood illness had forced her to abandon work — along with health insurance — to care for him.
Her husband, Bill, had been able to cover them both.
But what if he hadn't?
"It opened my eyes to just how close to the edge we all are," she tells the assembled multitudes. Then comes the rallying cry.
"Moms of America are standing up," she shouts to cheers. "We've got to do right by our moms."
KRISTIN ROWE-Finkbeiner does not immediately strike you as an up-and-coming political figure. She is only a few years out of a career as a freelance writer. She carries her son's asthma medications in her purse, alongside a pink lipstick, rushing from his lacrosse games to media interviews.
But that is just surface gloss. The determinedly cheerful blonde has an eye for statistics, a voracious appetite for public policy and a facility with facts and figures that would make Alan Greenspan jealous.
Too high-revving to sip coffee at our first interview, she reels off some of the basics:
The U.S. Census shows that families with a stay-at-home parent are seven times more likely to live in poverty. And while 72 percent of mothers work, women with children are hired 79 percent less often than those without kids, according to a Cornell University study from 2007. Once they find employment, moms are offered starting salaries that are $11,000 less than men's.
Motherhood generally means an economic free fall for women, Rowe-Finkbeiner says.
To some, her solution — provide universal health care, fund family leave and grant all workers paid sick days — sounds impossible, the pie-in-the-sky wishes of a Pollyanna with no command of the political fine points. But the Obama administration has twice requested Rowe-Finkbeiner's presence at major policy events. U.S. Senators Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid blog on her Web site. And more than 1 million people have become members of the advocacy group, MomsRising, that Rowe-Finkbeiner cofounded three years ago to push for her family-friendly goals.
To her, this is feminism come full circle — from supporting women in the workplace to supporting women with children. "I sort of thought that feminists before me had taken care of this problem," she says. "But it turns out that motherhood is one of the biggest modern barriers to economic equality."
Her energy is prodigious, but Rowe-Finkbeiner's true genius is in using the Internet and its social-networking sites to further her political aims. She can press a few buttons and generate throngs.
"When I started using Facebook, Kristin was one of the first people who 'friended' me, just on the strength of having my e-mail through MomsRising," says Alison Duren-Sutherland, a Renton mom who works part-time processing insurance forms at a doctor's office. "I don't know her, but I'd read her updates about going to Washington, but also about going on vacation with her family. She's very much a real person, and that is what brought her to these issues."
Since that early introduction, Duren-Sutherland has been emboldened to lobby in Olympia for paid family leave, meet with U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell on health-care reform and start her own blog on midwifery and related health issues.
"A lot of people may talk about family values, but they're not talking about how to actually make this country work for families — and MomsRising is," she says. "They deal with these issues. And people show up."
A wink at Betty Crocker-style mommies frames much of Rowe-Finkbeiner's work, but behind the cookie campaigns and "power of onesies" events stands an army of women mobilized to fight for societal change, undeterred by corporate cold shoulders. At dawn on June 30, 32,000 MomsRising members flooded the e-mail in-boxes of mortgage-company CEOs who had not supported President Obama's Making Home Affordable plan. By noon, OneWest Bank had announced that it would change course, and a few days later, after 50,000 letters had been sent, Goldman Sachs did the same.
"It's sort of at people's peril that they don't listen to mothers," Rowe-Finkbeiner says, pointing out that with women making up more than 50 percent of the vote and most women being moms — well, you can do the math.
FIGHTING FOR fundamental changes to the American workplace economy and tying this to the sanctified — sometimes vilified — institution of motherhood has attracted plenty of cynics. Bloggers rant about entitled mommies who think nothing of taking over quiet coffee shops with their baby carriages and noisy children. If you can't afford child care and health insurance, they rail, maybe you shouldn't get pregnant. To Rowe-Finkbeiner, that is just poorly disguised sexism.
"The comments can be incredibly charged," she says. "One that stays with me on paid leave is: 'If I have to help with your kid, you need to help with my dog license.' For real. People are talking that way about children."
Married to a former Republican state senator, Rowe-Finkbeiner refuses to see her issues as partisan. Democrats and Republicans have babies, she says. Democrats and Republicans go into poverty. Everyone gets sick and needs paid days off. Everyone has a mother. "If you have a belly button," she likes to say, "you need to be concerned about these issues."
But she has learned to temper her activist streak by supporting her position with facts, not rhetoric. Having a husband who did not always agree with her ideology helped.
"He asks the tough questions," she says. "Some of our 'discussions' are years long."
Among their most fractious debates: Paid family leave. Bill Finkbeiner, a small-business owner working in real-estate development, was staunchly opposed to it during the 14 years he served in the Legislature.
"I was pretty sensitive to the challenges that small businesses face, so when paid family leave first came up I thought it'd be a nice thing to do. But how big was this problem, really?" he says. "Kristin did just an incredible amount of research on this issue, and she opened my eyes. I wouldn't say I've radically changed my politics, but I definitely am more aware of some of the issues based on what I've learned from Kristin. Part of the reason these things haven't gotten more traction in the past is that the people who cared about them felt somewhat disaffected from politics. Now they have a way to express their opinion. The economy makes it tough, but the hearing and attention that's going to get paid is tenfold what it was before MomsRising was out there."
MUCH OF her effort comes out of Rowe-Finkbeiner's personal sense that mothers in America are victims of economic discrimination because government policy has not kept up with societal change.
"Our economic structure is based on a family that is no longer typical — a 1950s family," she says, "which is hugely different today than even just a few years ago. Three-quarters of moms are in the labor force now."
Her own mother was a single parent, raising the family in Maryland. But when Rowe-Finkbeiner herself was forced to leave work to care for her son, she wondered how many other women were in similar situations. Or worse. She made a few phone calls and found there was no data to answer the question.
"At the Department of Labor, they told me, essentially, 'because they're not paid, we don't track them.' "
With that, an activist was born.
Rowe-Finkbeiner wrote a book, "The F Word," about feminism on the wane, and in 2006 joined forces with Joan Blades, co-founder of MoveOn.org, to write "The Motherhood Manifesto." At the same time, they kicked off the MomsRising Web site as a meeting place and clearinghouse for information on everything from toxic toys to paid sick days. There, members also share stories — some of them desperate — about having to choose between food and health care for their children, or donating blood plasma to pay for basic household items.
"I think the current economic crisis is a wake-up call," Rowe-Finkbeiner says. "What's happening with mothers and families now is becoming critical — quickly. People think it's their fault that they can't juggle everything at the same time, when actually, these problems are part of the nation's economic structure."
In delivering that message to lawmakers, MomsRising is tireless, and effective. One group of mothers met with state Sen. Majority Leader Lisa Brown to discuss funding early childhood education. They were granted just 20 minutes, between the senator's breakfast meeting and her talk with Seattle's mayor. But in that time they managed to elicit assurances that Senate Democrats would make early learning a legislative priority in the coming session.
When Brown duly mentions the grim economy — the projected state budget shortfall is $2.6 billion — Rowe-Finkbeiner nods and offers a model for early learning that has been effective and cost efficient: the military's. She delivers proof that it is possible. She comments about constituent support. "This issue generates perhaps the most intense reaction of any for our members," she says.
After the meeting, a waitress pulls Rowe-Finkbeiner aside, confesses that she could not help overhearing and offers to pay for the group's coffee and toast in support.
Similarly populist tactics helped MomsRising win passage of the state Paid Family Leave Act in 2006, though it remains unfunded. Sen. Brown acknowledged that the issue is a hard sell among her colleagues in Olympia.
"On the other hand," she says, "MomsRising shouldn't wait to voice these concerns because their stories are even more compelling now, and the Obama administration has made a commitment to these issues, so there is some synergy here.
"Kristin is a powerhouse," she adds. "And we just haven't really had a movement of mobilized, articulate parents working on behalf of children like this before."
MOMSRISING.ORG is an all-Internet organization. There are staffers around the country, but no actual headquarters. There are policy positions and campaigns, but little of it exists on paper. Almost no one is in the "office" between 3 and 8 p.m., when children are getting picked up from school and dinners are being prepared.
Nevertheless, membership exploded to 1.3 million on Mother's Day, thanks to the group's ingenious video celebrating the power of moms. It bounced around cyberspace, generating about 100,000 sign-ups per hour and made MomsRising one of the largest membership nonprofits in the country. Rowe-Finkbeiner has since grown accustomed to jetting across the country to Washington, D.C., and back in a single day.
Finding a way to engage parents juggling children, households and careers, with no time for traditional activism, has been key to their success. Rowe-Finkbeiner and her staff are expert at crafting e-mails to legislators that members need only sign before clicking "send."
"To be so busy and still have your feet in politics is just amazing," says Yvonne Zick, 36, who lives on Vashon Island with two children and has been a member for years. So galvanized was she by the group's campaign for paid family leave that Zick (and her husband) wore T-shirts sporting the MomsRising logo every day until the law passed. "That I can in five seconds say, 'I believe in a cause' and my voice is heard is amazing," she says. "It is no small thing what that woman is doing. She is literally changing the way politics is run."
Claudia Rowe (no relation to Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner) is a Seattle freelance writer. Ellen M. Banner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
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