The New York Times recently ran a piece titled “Is It Safe to Play Yet?”, with the puzzling subtitle: “Going to Extreme Lengths to Purge Household Toxins.” Puzzling because, instead of focusing on the very real health threats to children from exposures to toxic chemicals (cancer, asthma, learning disabilities and more), the writer uses the “neurotic mommy” trope to frame his piece.
Let’s imagine for a moment that a dad saw a danger to his child and removed it (caught a ball that was hurtling towards her head, say). He would be called heroic, not neurotic. Why is it okay to ridicule women for the same action?
In fact, the article itself points out why women do have to act in our own homes: government regulation of harmful chemicals in everyday products is basically non-existent. We’re surrounded by endocrine disruptors in canned food, carcinogens in bubble bath, and neurotoxins in toys. And exposures to children are even more alarming, since children’s bodies are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of such chemicals.
So with government regulators MIA, it’s up to us to address this problem. But creating an (impossible) non-toxic bubble in our homes or shopping our way out of the problem (the Times piece cites a $400 bassinet) isn’t going to do it. We need real policy reform, on the federal level, to force chemical manufacturers to clean up their act.
And that’s where the profound power of all of these “neurotic mommies” comes in. Thousands of women, from Alaska to Alabama, have banded together in organizations large and small. The national Safer Chemicals Healthy Families campaign serves as an umbrella coalition, amplifying our voice on Capitol Hill and making sure that Congress hears our demand for change. Twice last year, groups of families held “Stroller Brigades for Safer Chemicals,” literally marching in the streets to demonstrate the need for reform. We are educated and passionate about the issue, politically organized and active, and working on both the local and federal levels: that hardly sounds neurotic to me.
But women who have stood up for social change have been derided as neurotic and hysterical for as long as there have been social change movements. The 19th century activist Fanny Wright, who fought for the abolition of slavery and free public education for all, saw her supporters called “poor and deluded followers of a crazy atheistical woman.”
And yet, here we are in 2012 with the same tired old reaction. Somehow, The New York Times ridiculing women for protecting our kids resonates with the recent political discourse around contraception – when we take care of our families and act in self-determination, the ad hominem attacks start again.
Nonetheless, as women from Fanny Wright to Sandra Fluke have shown, standing up for truth carries its own unassailable power. And really, who’s crazier: women who don’t want our kids bathing in carcinogens, or the chemical industry and its pet legislators, who fight hard to ensure that they will?
Katie Silberman is Associate Director of the Science and Environmental Health Network (www.sehn.org). She lives in Providence, RI with her husband and two little boys.