Cherri Foytlin didn’t set out to become an activist. She is a mother of six, married to a man who worked on an oil rig in south Louisiana while she worked at a small-town paper, writing features about things like who grew the biggest cauliflower that year.
But when the BP oil spill happened in 2010, killing 11 and releasing almost four million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, BP invited Foytlin, like all of the state’s press, to go out on a tour of the disaster.
“It was a little show for us,” she recalls. BP took her and the other journalists out on boats and then-Gov. Bobby Jindal came to speak to the press. “I wanted to talk to somebody who’s a fisherman or a person that has to clean up.”
So she went back later on her own. After tooling around a bit, she finally convinced a “big Cajun fisherman” to take her out on his boat, along with the man’s five-year-old son. As they idled through the blob of oil, the father cried. He’d lost his livelihood; his ability to take care of his family.
“As a mom, don’t I have a duty — a moral directive — to get involved?”
That night, when she went home, she looked in the mirror “and I remember very clearly saying, ‘Wow, what have I done to contribute to this? How can I change that? And how can I even imagine giving the children a world that’s like this?’”
Perhaps without even fully realizing it at that moment, Foytlin became a part of something much bigger: a legacy of American women — and, more specifically, mothers — who have come together for generations to move the needle on social, political and environmental issues that affect us all.
We see it in the news cycle every generation. Women in general — and moms, in particular — compose a huge part of the electorate, making the “mom vote” highly sought after. Women were credited with fueling a blue wave in the 2018 midterms. Ahead of the 2022 midterms, Politico called women over 50 the “most important voting bloc” to the election, explaining that the group is not only the largest bloc of voters but the largest bloc of swing voters.
The activism of women, as much as their votes, can impact our country. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America now has a chapter in every state; and the group claims numerous political wins on both the local and federal level, from California’s new law that is intended to stop the spread of unlicensed guns to the Biden administration’s “Safer America Plan.”
But the first steps for these big movements that mothers create are often relatively small.
For 18 months, Mary Alice Hatch stood by, devastated, as her daughter experienced so much physical pain from a mystery illness that she was, at one point, suicidal. She missed school, social events and some of the most important years of her young life.
Desperate for answers, Hatch turned to the Yellow Pages. She found a pain specialist who knew immediately what the problem was: endometriosis. Soon thereafter, Hatch’s daughter had a diagnosis; eventually, she had surgery that led to a recovery. With the right information, the winding and difficult path her family journeyed felt much clearer. But if it was this challenging for a family with the resources to find a way forward, how impossible might it feel for others?
Determined to help, Hatch has worked relentlessly to fund endometriosis research and spread awareness of the disease. “We saw an attorney in the D.C. metro area who told us that endometriosis wasn’t on the Department of Defense’s list of diseases,” Hatch recalls. “That’s a massive deal because the list allows federal funds to be allocated to research.” Hatch’s father-in-law, the late Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, reached out to Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Together, they spearheaded a bipartisan effort to get research funding for endometriosis from the Department of Defense.
Now, Hatch aspires to create legislation that will make women’s health procedures more accessible. “It’s important for me to say that I couldn’t have done any of this alone,” she says. “No matter what resources you have, you still can’t affect change without a community.”
“I remember very clearly saying, ‘Wow, what have I done to contribute to this? How can I change that? And how can I even imagine giving the children a world that’s like this?’”
Foytlin has also worked to create a community to affect change. After the oil spill, she hosted a fundraiser in her home, which included the photos Foytlin had taken of the disaster. The proceeds went to help those impacted by the oil spill, including the Cajun fisherman who’d taken her out on his boat. Foytlin and other locals began to coordinate with the Environmental Protection Agency to bring speakers to southern Louisiana to talk about the issues affecting them.
The small injustices many people experienced added up to a much larger injustice, she realized, which primarily impacts communities of color. Many rural, poor and minority communities “have some sort of chemical plant or leftovers from bombs and ammunition from the military,” says Foytlin, because “they don’t have the social capital to protect themselves.” The ironically named Rolling Hills “pit,” a landfill near Pensacola’s Wedgewood community — a predominantly Black neighborhood in Escambia County, Florida — is a prime example. Locals reportedly suffer from higher cancer rates than the national average, which locals attributed to the ongoing dumping of various toxic chemicals before, during and since the 2010 BP oil spill.
Foytlin went on to partner with other Native American women to co-found the L’eau Est La Vie (Water is Life) camp in hopes of preventing the Bayou Bridge Pipeline from being built on the land. “As a mom, don’t I have a duty — a moral directive — to get involved?”
Mothers are often at the forefront of activism both in the United States and internationally, says Danielle Poe, the University of Dayton’s dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and author of the book “Maternal Activism: The Ethical Ambiguity Faced by Mothers Confronting Injustice.”
“I can’t think of any culture that doesn’t have a special respect for mothers,” she says, explaining that maternal activism works for a wide range of reasons in a variety of settings: authorities are less likely to use violence against moms and, because everyone has a mother, they’re highly relatable.
Mary Harris Jones — who later became known as “Mother Jones” — led millions of workers in the late 1800s to demand fair labor laws. Jones protested on behalf of labor rights and against child labor across the country — even spending time in Utah and Colorado to do so. This movement led to riots and a federal holiday we all now know and observe on the first Monday of every September.
Mothers were also instrumental in gaining American women the right to vote. The suffrage movement was effective, in part, because it played on the idea of “women’s role as nurturers and a belief in women’s moral superiority,” according to the Library of Congress, using both as “arguments to convince the American public that women should have the right to vote.”
This emotional reasoning wove its way through the generations. In 1973, Carolista Baum stood in the path of a moving bulldozer to stop it from destroying the Jockey’s Ridge sand dunes — the tallest sand dune system on the Atlantic Coast. The landmark, which is 7,000 years old, was threatened by the development of condominiums at the time. But the impetus for Baum’s activism wasn’t to control corporate development. It was much simpler: Her three children loved climbing and exploring the dunes, and she didn’t want them, or other children, to lose that opportunity. After Baum’s 1973 protest, the dunes were declared a national natural landmark and, in 1975, it became a state park, guaranteeing its preservation for generations to come.
Mary Alice Hatch shows that political activism in the name of protecting future generations can be a unifier among mothers.
This legacy has led to larger mother-led organizations that have become some of the most politically effective groups in American history. Mothers Against Drunk Driving is a perfect example, Poe says. The organization was founded in 1980 by Candace Lightner after her daughter was killed by a drunken driver. It quickly grew into a large nonprofit organization that is funded in a variety of ways, including individual contributions, government grants and corporate donations. The organization successfully advocated for higher drinking ages in all 50 states. MADD was also instrumental in getting stricter drunken driving laws passed throughout the country. A recent success is the inclusion of a device in all new cars that will prevent people from driving drunk, a provision included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in November 2021.
Relinquishing the activist title and centering one’s identity as a mother — intentionally or not — is often a powerful tactic that ultimately makes these women more sympathetic, Poe explains. Mothers, says Poe, are “uniquely positioned to be witnesses to loss. … Whenwe hear their loss, it also brings to light social issues and harms that we otherwise don’t see.”
In the beginning, Foytlin didn’t think of herself as an activist, though she later came to embrace the label. And while she and other activists weren’t successful in their attempt to stop the Bayou Bridge oil pipeline from being built in Louisiana, Foytlin believes her work has made a lasting impact on the world. “When you stand up — when people witness your courage and your mission and your focus and your passion — it’s not a failure.”
Today, Foytlin is focused on training the next generation of activists, namely her own children. Two of her daughters are currently in college, one majoring in environmental science and the other in filmmaking — a powerful medium for raising awareness and bringing about change.
During her journey to create better access to health care options for people experiencing endometriosis, Hatch has also found how important it is to use the opportunities one has to create opportunity for many. “For anyone who feels passionate about an issue or feels a need for change, don’t give up,” she says. “You don’t have to feel alone. Find an organization, call them up and ask, ‘What can I do?’” From her experience, Hatch has found that a path will open up from asking that question. And often, it’s a path that can leave the world better for the next generation.
“We won’t create the perfect world for them,” Foytlin resolves. “But we can give them a chance to create their own. And that’s where my goal is: to create those steps so that they can carry the light forward.”