The Moms' Secret Weapon

So now it's gun control, not abortion. Just as they did eight years ago, women are marching on Washington. As before, the cause's supporters are mostly educated, middle-to upper-class working women, rallying around an issue that has generated a huge gender gap--a 20-point divide in the current case. Then why, if you listen to these like-minded sisters, do you think you are hearing not the descendants of those old pro-choice protesters but their antagonists? Like the anti-abortion right, the Million Mom March expresses its aims in the language of "innocence" and "protection."

This goes beyond the pink-crayoned beseechings dotted with tiny hearts and steaming apple pies that mark the movement's Internet home page. The moms' pitch concentrates so single-mindedly on the salvation of what it calls "our defenseless children" that the roughly 3,500 adult women murdered each year (a rate that has remained steady even as male-homicide rates have declined) hardly get a mention in its literature and press appeals. "Moms across the country have been crying in their kitchens," declared the march's founder, Donna Dees-Thomases, a skilled publicist who dubs herself a "New Jersey mom" who just "couldn't stop thinking of those kids."

The Million Mom March Web site implores, protect a child! and offers postings entreating us to: "Look into the eyes of a child, yours or any other child. See their smiles. Touch their tiny fingers and kiss that tiny little nose. Imagine their future... How will YOU ensure those eyes still shine bright tomorrow and the next day?" If the rallying cry of the reproductive-rights campaigns was "my body, my right," this time around it sounds more like "my kid, my stroller."

What's going on here? The Right to Life movement shrewdly turned the fetus into a cute-as-a-button poster child. (Anti-abortion tracts even offered "diaries" penned by the in utero tykes themselves.) But that was at least a battle over fetuses. Why is the same rhetoric cropping up in a battle about guns? Ask the founder Dees-Thomases, and she'll say with a verbal shrug that she has no idea she was using anti-abortion lingo; she was only conscious of creating a "1950-ish feel" to her Web site to broaden its appeal. "I wish I could say I was that smart," she laughs. Nonetheless, the Million Moms' baby talk may be an unwitting masterstroke. Because it so perfectly homes in--and hog-ties--the opposition.

The pro-gun lobby has always had a strong anti-abortion sentiment. Indeed, pro-gun and "pro-life" memberships markedly overlap, as do their sources of funding and organizational ties. I've attended a number of militia gatherings, and every one had on prominent display up-close-and-personal portraits of the unborn. Likewise, if you go to a right-to-life assembly, you are likely to receive leaflets and even lectures on Second Amendment rights. Time and again, anti-abortionists who buttonholed me to decry pro-choice feminists smoothly segued into a denunciation of those same feminists for "taking our guns away."

For the men whose pro-gun and pro-life preoccupations are twinned, the connection goes deep. Whether defending their right to bear arms against government "jack-booted thugs," or proclaiming their right to save fetuses from the clutches of "the abortion mill," these men are compelled by the same desire: to resurrect their traditional male role as family protector. If there is little call for that role in their actual domestic lives, they can still dream of reclaiming it in fantasy realms. Thus, the "patriots" obsessed with Waco envisioned the Branch Davidian compound as a "family home" and themselves as sentries protecting "the innocent children." Similarly, anti-abortion activists imagine their attacks on family planning clinics to be "rescue missions" in which they are called upon to liberate the "innocent unborn."

Reproductive control and lack of gun control are inseparable halves of what feminists once dubbed the male "protection racket": If women have no control over their wombs, then they are helpless dependents in need of men's protection. But if women can make their own choices, then they no longer need the paternal guardianship either. That is why gun ownership and anti-abortion advocacy go together: each props up the other.

Intentional or not, the Million Mom March's rhetoric strikes a blow at the psychological solar plexus of the pro-gun movement, the alliance between pro-gun and anti-abortion sentiments. They are saying in essence: not only don't we want male protection, we are the protectors now.

That stance may prove even more unnerving for their male opponents, who will be hard-pressed to confront it openly. After all, these women are "just moms with strollers." Perhaps never has such a nonthreatening posture been so threatening.