This Mother’s Day, Remember the Age of ‘Municipal Motherhood’

Coronavirus can infect anyone, but the pandemic’s impact has not been equal. In the United States, with the highest death toll in the world, the death rate among black Americans is more than double that of white ones, and infections among Latinos in some states are rising at a faster clip. Crowded, polluted neighborhoods and workers in low-paid yet critical service jobs seem to be at highest risk of infection. Women make up a majority of these front-line workers, and they bear the heavier burden of childcare duties with schools still closed.

What would Jane Addams, the famed Progressive Era activist, sociologist, philosopher, and Nobel Prize winner, do about the glaring social gaps in the greatest infectious disease crisis the nation has faced in more than a century?

“If you had a little seance with Addams and her friends, there’s no doubt in my mind that they’d say what is needed is federally subsidized health care for all,” said Anya Jabour, a history professor at the University of Montana who specializes in gender studies. “And they would have wanted to study the disparate effects of the pandemic closely, because that is the sort of thing that they did in the Progressive Era.”

The question is worth asking, not only because the fin-de-siècle urban society that Addams fought to improve has so many parallels to this dark present. Addams, who is often referred to as the “mother of social work,” also gave rise to a kind of social identity that presents a refreshing way to relate to community — what Jabour calls “municipal motherhood.” At a time when the epitome of female respectability was playing angel in the house, Addams argued that tending to society was just as important as tending to one’s own. She put it this way in 1892: “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

The Chicago of Addams‘s day was a city of stark inequalities and chronic public health crises, especially for women and children. More than 10,000 children under age five died every year in the 1890s, many claimed by bronchitis, typhoid, smallpox and other infectious diseases. The city’s crowded tenement districts, where the poor immigrant and African-American families who powered the city’s industrial boom resided, suffered most. Addams was outraged. In 1891, she and her companion at the time, Ellen Gates Starr, founded Hull-House, the first urban settlement house in the United States, on the Near West Side. (Addams, like several other women in the suffrage movement, “never publicly claimed a lesbian identity,” as Jabour writes, but she’d later refer to her next relationship, with philanthropist Mary Rozet Smith, as “married folks.”)

Inspired by the Toynbee Hall settlement house of Victorian London, where wealthy reformers strove to bring rich and poor under one roof, Hull-House was different from a traditional charity: Poor working families could come to access classes, cultural events, banking assistance, child care, health care, and other free resources.

The idea of providing a space for people from different economic and ethnic backgrounds to interact and learn was a concept at odds with the prevailing social theories of the day. Social Darwinist philosophers and economists like Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner argued that the laws of supply and demand that determined the exploitative wages and hours of factory work were as natural as the lunar cycle, and that the wealthy owed nothing to the poor.

Addams disagreed. With her Hull-House associates, she tried to mend the fault lines of society as she saw them, with remarkable sophistication. In addition to pioneering various social services, many of which are now widely provided by local and state governments, they pioneered techniques in sociology, using surveys, journalistic investigations, and data analyses to reveal the conditions that gave rise to inequality and poor health, including meager factory wages, poor sanitation, and cramped and windowless dwellings, Jabour said. They also agitated for policy reforms, including the juvenile welfare system, child labor protections, and widow’s pensions. Many of these ideas turned into local and state law and, decades later, inspired the national social safety net programs enacted by the New Deal.

Addams and the Hull-House also inspired other settlement houses and women’s municipal leagues in cities around the U.S. and abroad. Members of these associations provided similar social services and crusaded for city fixes that endure today, from safe milk to sewer clean-ups to vaccine clinics to some of the world’s first playgrounds. Most were, like Addams, white women from well-to-do families; their organizations had problems and blind spots. They were often patronizing and sometimes racist towards the immigrants and African American families they worked with, and many clubs were racially segregated, including Hull-House, until the 1930s. Women reformers were also severely hampered in one major respect: Until 1920, they could not vote.  

Yet many of these activists, Addams the most famous, insisted that their radical pro-social ideas be enacted into federal law, no matter what the Social Darwinists said. “The goal was always for their programs to expand and become national, so that people could get consistent services and benefits regardless of where they were,” Jabour said.

Though they had their shortcomings, in many respects, they succeeded. Had they not, the inequalities they fought against would have likely grown deeper; Jabour imagines a cutthroat society of “people killing each other for food and medical supplies and masks and a place to sleep.”

Today, the companies, philanthropists, volunteers, and local governments pouring money, ventilators, and masks into fighting the coronavirus pandemic are doing so without a unified federal response from the U.S. government. Indeed, White House recommendations are frequently at odds with those of federal disease control authorities. But that doesn’t mean a Hull-House redux isn’t possible, Jabour said. When they started their work, Addams and her colleagues also lacked federal support; it took decades to see their ideas hammered into the New Deal.

Re-enter the concept of municipal motherhood, which, though explicitly gendered in Addams’ time, no longer needs to be. In the current coronavirus crisis, many women in national leadership roles are getting singled out as praiseworthy. Yet effective and empathetic leaders can be found across the gender spectrum, and ascribing any person’s abilities to gender is unilluminating at best and sexist at worst. Indeed, some plaudits earned by Germany’s Angela Merkel and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern echo the patronizing language Addams and her cohort attracted for their efforts. “What man is doing more, if as much, for human betterment than Miss Jane Addams of Chicago?” wrote the Supreme Court Justice David Brewer in 1909, 11 years before the 19th amendment was ratified. “Her womanly sympathy does not blind her judgment, and multitudes feel that their uplift in life is due to her.”

The highest office was not achievable for women in Addams’ time; women like her had to use essentialist gender roles to carve out a space in public life. But embracing the idea of municipal motherhood requires no particular gender or sexual identity at all. Addams, the municipal mother who never had children of her own, had a response to compliments like Brewer’s. “I do not believe that women are better than men,” she said in a speech to the Chicago Political Equality League in 1897. “We have not wrecked railroads, nor corrupted legislature, nor done many unholy things that men have done; but then we must remember that we have not had the chance.”

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Where Tech Companies Spent Millions in Municipal Elections—and Lost

How much political power does $1.5 million buy?

That’s how much Amazon donated to a Seattle Political Action Committee that aims to swing the city council towards a more pro-business agenda. The company, which is headquartered downtown, has influenced the council successfully before, donating $25,000 to a campaign to kill a per-employee head tax that would have gone towards funding homelessness initiatives in the city.

This time, according to early voting results, Amazon didn’t win.

To be fair, it didn’t quite lose, either. Out of the seven city council candidates Amazon supported, four appear poised to win their elections. (One of the four, Jim Pugel, is only leading by a tiny margin.) That’s not quite enough to secure a majority on Seattle’s nine-member council, but enough to move the needle.

Another of the pro-business candidates, Egan Orion, struck a key blow, likely defeating Kshama Sawant, a pro-labor city council member in the Socialist Alternative Party who’s long been a thorn in the side of Amazon and other large corporations. She branded the head tax the “Amazon tax,” and called this week’s election a fight over the “soul of Seattle.” (Supporters note that Sawant came back from a more than seven-point deficit during her last election, and that her fate won’t be assured until all the votes are tallied at the end of this week.)

Framing the stakes of the election, Sawant told the New York Times recently: “The question is: Is Seattle going to become a playground for only the very wealthy, or is it going to be a city that serves the needs of ordinary people?”

Amazon wasn’t the only business that spent big on city campaigns. From San Francisco to Jersey City, tech companies poured money into nudging the outcome of ballot questions on whether to regulate, tax, or expand their power, in some cases contributing to new spending records at the city level. And despite million-dollar campaigns launched by companies like Juul and Airbnb, Amazon wasn’t the only one to see voters defy them.

In San Francisco, a measure that would have overturned the city’s e-cigarette sales ban lost by an overwhelming margin, meaning the moratorium will hold. Initially, venture-backed vape pen company Juul spent $11 million on a campaign to overturn the ban, but it pulled its support before the vote amid public health concerns.

In Jersey City, a bill to regulate the 3,000 Airbnb rentals that locals complain are flooding the city with unruly tourism passed, despite a $4.2 million campaign by the short-term rental platform to defeat it. Airbnb blamed the hotel lobby, which spent only $1 million.

And also in San Francisco, Uber and Lyft took a different strategy: They both supported a small tax of 3.25 percent on most Uber and Lyft rides, introduced as an alternative to a more punitive tax that could have been levied without voter approval. The ride-hailing companies contributed comparatively modest amounts—according to campaign finance records, Lyft donated $400,000 and Uber $300,000—and the initiative was leading slightly as of publication.

Tech-money-fueled campaigns aren’t new in San Francisco. Last year, a tax on businesses to support affordable housing and homelessness not unlike Seattle’s was on the ballot, inspiring entities like Lyft, Stripe, Square, and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to donate hundreds of thousands each to the effort to defeat it. But in that case, Salesforce and its CEO Mark Benioff also dropped almost $5 billion to pass it. Though the measure was approved by voters, it won by less than a two-thirds margin, and is currently tied up in court.

Amazon’s spending in Seattle was part of a particularly notable phenomenon: The council race was the most expensive in the city’s history, even as it tested the strength of a new initiative intended to curb big money in politics.

Under a “democracy voucher” program that came into effect this year, all registered voters in the city were sent four $25 vouchers to spend on any candidates they wanted to support—but only those who agreed to spend less than $150,000 on their general election campaigns. When business interests in the city banded together with the Chamber of Commerce to start a PAC called Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), and the cash started pouring in, candidates who had initially opted into the program asked to opt out, worried they wouldn’t be able to compete without hustling for more money.

By Election Day, the New York Times reported that “11 of the 12 general election candidates who participated in the voucher program had been released from the limits.” CASE pulled in more than $4 million, with a quarter coming from Amazon, and the rest from other companies with Seattle-area offices, like Google, Expedia, Starbucks and Microsoft.

M. Lorena González, one of two council members who represents the entire city and wasn’t up for reelection this year, is sponsoring a bill that would tighten campaign finance restrictions even more, limiting the amount corporations can donate to PACs, and effectively abolishing super PACs like the Chamber of Commerce’s CASE.

“We operate in an environment where corporations like Amazon can make unlimited contributions, because there are no regulations,” she told CityLab. “As a result you saw them put a fistful of cash on the scales of democracy to tip the city council in their favor.”

Even presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren condemned Amazon’s spending. “In a city struggling with homelessness, Amazon is dropping an outrageous amount of money to defeat progressive candidates fighting for working people,” Sanders tweeted.

CASE argues that the candidates it endorsed will not only be good for business, but for the city: Its website says they all “demonstrate a strong commitment to improving the quality of life and economic opportunities for all Seattleites,” particularly when it comes to easing traffic congestion and improving transit, instituting systemic reforms around homelessness, and supporting local business growth. Polls conducted by the Chamber and local newspapers showed that residents were disappointed with the current council, and ready for change.

González noted that what aligns several of the CASE-endorsed candidates is also an emphasis on maintaining Seattle’s “regressive tax system,” “using punitive criminal justice system tools to address homelessness,” and “not tackling criminal justice reform as a whole.” (CASE didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

With Amazon achieving less than a majority hold on the council, the takeaway some Seattle progressives left with Wednesday was that it could have been worse. “Imagine the Chamber and Amazon honchos this morning looking at City Council strategy for next year,” Seattle’s former Democratic mayor, Mike McGinn, tweeted. “Those business honchos are not sitting there clapping each other on the back saying ‘We killed it last night!’ They’re saying ‘crap—how the hell do we get to five votes on anything—we have completely lost control of the council.’” He added that during his term as mayor from 2010 to 2013, the Chamber of Commerce held seven of the nine seats, giving it a stronger pro-business bent.

But Amazon’s intervention shows that its interest in—and impact on—politics is only growing in the wake of the struggle over the head tax. On city council candidates, Amazon only spent $130,000 in 2015, according to campaign finance records, meaning their spending increased by more than 650 percent this year. (According to WUSA9, Amazon also spent almost $300,000 on Republican and Democratic house and senate races in Virginia, the state where it’s planning another large campus.)

And its spending is not always in opposition to funding public initiatives. This year, the company contributed $400,000 at the state level to join progressives in opposing a cut to car registration fees that would slash transit funding precipitously (Microsoft spent $650,000). Despite their opposition, it looks like the measure is going to pass.

This spring, the power of big spending will likely be tested again. California’s bill reclassifying gig workers as employees—which could pose an existential threat to sharing-economy companies like Uber and Lyft—could be challenged in a ballot measure funded by the two ride-hailing companies and Postmates, a fooddelivery app. Together, they’ve already contributed $90 million to the effort. That’s 60 Seattle city councils worth.

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