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Motherhood and Advocacy, Complementary Roles

October 4, 2001
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Less than 20 miles from Washington, DC, there are 6600 acres of protected lands on the Mason Neck peninsula along the Potomac River. This beautiful land, an important nesting site for bald eagles, herons, and many other animals, was almost lost to suburban sprawl. Well-connected builders had drawn up plans for housing and shopping, and were well on their way to filling in the marshes, cutting down the forests, and pushing out the wildlife. But along came a woman with passion, initiative, and organizing skills: at-home mother Elizabeth Spears Hartwell. For decades, Liz Hartwell and the citizen activists she led fought to protect the land they loved, a portion of which is now a National Wildlife Refuge named in her honor: the Elizabeth Hartwell National Wildlife Refuge.

In her academic paper, Safe Landing, Elizabeth Townsend Rieben writes about this environmental battle and the fight's key leader, Elizabeth Hartwell. An at-home mother of two boys (or "housewife" as they said in the 1960s), Liz Hartwell became known as "The Eagle Lady" for her unrelenting work to protect the bald eagles and other wildlife.

Rieben wrote:  

"In the end, these ulterior motives would be kept in check by a vigilant citizenry activated by tireless leaders, such as Hartwell on the Mason Neck front, who had the time, the passion, and the courage to devote long hours to the task and to stand up to powerful interests backed, in some cases, by elected officials of dubious character."

"Hers was a time consuming endeavor. Before the days of word processing, she hand typed each and every letter (and there were many) perfectly; she had no administrative assistants; she was her own secretarial pool. She was a volunteer, receiving no compensation for taking on this “full time” job. What she did have was the freedom of answering to no boss, punching no time-clock, and being able to chart her own course."

"This investment of time was a significant factor in Hartwell’s success. What many women of Hartwell’s generation had plenty of was time, according to Janet Cole of Mason Neck. She was describing the life of a 1960s housewife who had great curiosity, unstructured mid-days, yet a commitment to be home before and after school. These smart women welcomed a challenge, one that would fill their free hours with intellectually stimulating work yet not interfere with their duties to children and husband. Today, most of these women are at work, paying someone else to watch the children. There simply is no longer a large cadre of women with free time on their hands to take up causes important to them. Today, time is scarce; 40 years ago, money was the limiting factor."

Time to tackle important causes can be an extremely valuable benefit of at-home parenting! 

A cautionary note to parents of infants and toddlers: please remember that Liz Hartwell's children were beyond those intense early years when she started her advocacy work. Parents of very young children are doing time-consuming, exhausting work -- and contributing to the "greater good" for society by raising healthy children.

Technology has certainly changed the nature of activism, as has corporate-sponsored advocacy campaigns. Like Liz Hartwell, at-home parent activists of today have "the freedom of answering to no boss, punching no time-clock, and being able to chart her own course." There are plenty of problems to tackle in the world, and still a great need for creative leadership.

There are many treasures on Mason Neck peninsula: a state park, an historical site and a regional park. These beautiful protected lands are not far from Washington, DC and George Washington's historic Mt. Vernon home. The Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge is a wonderful place to walk, to sit in the gazebo overlooking the marsh -- and if you're lucky, to spot a bald eagle!

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