Listen to Me Because I’m a Mom: Constructing Motherhood as a Source of Standing in the Gun Debate

Kaylin Bourdon


Who deserves to have a voice on issues that matter? In polarized debates on issues such as guns, abortion, and immigration, a constellation of activists contends to be heard and advocate for their point of view. To win attention, an activist strives to present themself as someone who deserves to be heard. Activists frame themselves by making meaning around their individual identities, experiences, and qualifications, emphasizing aspects they believe will persuade audiences, such as media outlets, to listen and acknowledge their claims. In doing so, they make an argument for standing, or their right to speak and be heard on a given issue. 

This paper explores how activists on opposing sides of the gun debate talk about themselves, presenting an argument about why they deserve to be heard, and how this shapes their position on guns. Gun-related violence is a serious problem in the United States, accounting for nearly 15 deaths per 100,000 people, a rate far surpassing that of other developed countries. Yet, there has been hardly any federal policy to address gun violence in the last 30 years. This is partly the result of the strategic efforts of social movements and an extremely polarized policy debate. At the current moment, there is little common ground because opponents in this conversation understand the issue differently. Social movements and activists contribute to this division by making conflicting arguments about the meaning of guns and about just who deserves to make claims and be heard on this issue. 

I focus on two prominent female activists who, at the time of data collection in 2018-2019, represented major organizations on each side of the debate. Shannon Watts founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012. She refers to herself as a “full-time volunteer” working on a range of activities, from leading “Stroller Jam” protests outside of congressional offices to speaking at events across the country. Dana Loesch was a paid spokesperson for the National Rifle Association (NRA), the largest and most powerful gun rights organization. As a spokesperson for the NRA, Loesch engaged with the media and other audiences to make claims on behalf of the organization. 

While Watts and Loesch take opposing positions in the debate and occupy different organizational roles, they both portray themselves as mothers. In doing so, they suggest that motherhood is a source of standing, or a worthy basis to make claims and be heard in the gun debate (Meyer and Bourdon 2020). Yet, they talk about motherhood differently, and their shared identity as mothers leads them to different positions on guns. Motherhood is a powerful—and extremely flexible—identity. Both activists believe that motherhood will bring them attention and credibility in the gun debate, even as they define it differently. 

I will begin by reviewing the relevant literature on claim-making in social movements and motherhood as a basis to make claims. Then, I will discuss the data and methods used for this research and present the findings. I argue that Watts—representing gun control—constructs motherhood in collectivist terms of community welfare. This informs her position on guns as a potential threat to the safety of our communities and focus on gun policy that could prevent this violence. In contrast, Loesch—representing gun rights—constructs motherhood in individualistic terms of personal responsibility. This informs her position on guns, as a tool to protect one’s family, and focus on the individual rights of gun owners. So, while motherhood could appear to be a source of common ground, the flexibility of the identity means it can be used simultaneously by opposing sides of the gun debate. 

Framing as Meaning-Making

Social movements use framing as a rhetorical tool to give meaning to groups of people, issues, and organizations as part of a strategic effort to attract attention and support (Klandermans 1984; Snow et al. 1986). Activists use framing to construct issues so that they align with their position and the viewpoints of audiences. Activists seek to frame issues in ways they believe will win over an audience and persuade others to care about their cause. As in most polarized issues, there is a difference in how each side frames guns. Contemporary gun rights activists often emphasize a constitutional right to self-defense (a relatively “new” interpretation of the Second Amendment). They portray guns as a tool to protect themselves, their family, and their property. Gun rights activists emphasize responsible gun ownership, promoting a personal responsibility model—that it is up to gun owners to ensure the safe and responsible use of guns. They argue that gun violence can only be stopped by responsible gun owners. In contrast, gun control activists tend to emphasize the potential threat of violence that comes with guns. Most gun control activists are not “anti-gun,” and some gun control activists even argue that gun ownership is a right, albeit one that can and should be restricted. Gun control activists also emphasize responsible gun ownership, but contend that this should be enforced through policy to protect society, rather than relying on the personal responsibility of individuals.

In addition to framing the issues they care about, activists frame themselves. While there is an extensive literature on how activists frame issues, less attention has been paid to how activists frame themselves. Yet, it is clear that who makes a claim—and how that person is perceived—matters to audiences (Benford 1993). Like all social actors, activists engage in impression management by trying to present themselves in a way that they believe will be compelling to audiences (Goffman 1959). In doing so, they frame themselves by presenting a curated version of self that they believe will help to persuade audiences to listen to them. Activists emphasize certain aspects of who they are, giving meaning to their biographies and identities. For example, they may highlight their expertise and credentials or their personal experience to justify their worthiness to make claims on a certain issue. This is important because claims are attached to claim-makers: audiences interpret claims by evaluating the content of the claim but also the credibility of the person making the claim. In doing this, activists reproduce and produce cultural attitudes, beliefs, and norms about who deserves to have a say on issues that impact our society (Schneider and Ingram 2012). 

Framing and Standing in Political Debates 

Activists frame themselves to achieve standing among an audience, and to convince an audience to listen to and acknowledge one’s claims. In courts of law, standing is a qualification that determines who has the right to be heard. To earn the right to bring a case in court, plaintiffs must demonstrate that they have experienced harm, the subject of their complaint is responsible for that harm, and the court has the means and jurisdiction to provide justice (Meyer and Bourdon 2020). Standing can also help us to understand the dynamics of political debates, although the standards and expectations are far less certain. 

As with framing, standing in political debates is a dynamic and interactive process. Various actors compete to influence the debate by making a case for why they deserve to be heard, and audiences, such as the media, determine who is worthy. To achieve standing, activists frame themselves. Since standing is dependent on the interpretations and acceptance of audiences, activists present a curated image of self that they believe will convince their audience that they deserve to be heard. To do this, actors frame themselves by amplifying aspects of their identities, experiences, and qualifications that they hope will resonate with their audience and bolster their credibility on a specific issue. For example, activists may make claims to standing based on expertise, personal harm, or as a representative speaking on behalf of a larger constituency. Audiences assess these claims to determine who is worthy of being heard, although there are no codified rules like in a courtroom (Meyer and Bourdon 2020).

Standing has been used in studies of social movements to understand the media’s reception to and coverage of actors, organizations, and claims (Gamson and Wolfsfeld 1993; Amenta et al. 2012; Laschever 2017). Researchers have previously treated standing as an outcome: an actor, organization, or claim is considered to have achieved standing when given a voice in media coverage. In contrast, I consider standing as a process by focusing on the agentic and strategic efforts of activists to win attention. In addition to framing the issues, activists frame themselves to present an argument for standing.

The Power of Motherhood 

Motherhood, or the maternal frame, serves as a powerful platform for women to make claims and achieve standing (Boris 1989; Killen 2019). Activists who frame themselves as mothers portray their activism as an extension of their maternal responsibilities. The maternal frame is powerful because it aligns with the popular cultural expectation for women to prioritize their role as mothers and the accompanying responsibilities, lending claims a degree of “moral legitimacy” (Epstein 1995). Motherhood conveys authenticity, as it is thought to be a natural and inherently selfless role for women; authority, as mothers are understood as responsible for issues related to caretaking, the family, and even the community (Killen 2019); as well as a gendered expertise on issues related to caretaking and the family (Azocar and Ferree 2015).

Motherhood has been used as a basis of standing on a range of actors and issues. This is demonstrated in the organizing efforts of low-income women of color in the U.S. (Boris 1989; Pardo 1990; Naples 1998; Killen 2019) and internationally, such as with the mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, who protest the political persecution and government-sponsored “disappearing” of their children and grandchildren (Schollkopf 2017). Middle class white women also use motherhood to claim standing through campaigns like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (Reinarmen 1988). 

Since standing through motherhood is evoked by a diverse set of actors on a range of issues, it is unsurprising that it has been constructed and deployed in varying ways. Race and class shape how women conceptualize and deploy motherhood, as well as how motherhood claims are received by audiences (Boris 1989; Pardo 1990; Naples 1992; Killen 2019). In particular, women of color in low-income communities have constructed their identity as mothers to include advocating for the larger community. Constructions of motherhood also differ according to the political orientation of claim-makers, with women on the left using motherhood to advocate for broader communities through a welfare state (Koven and Michel 1993). 

In sum, polarized debates are inundated by activists trying to advocate for their position. These activists frame themselves, alongside the issues they advocate for, in a strategic attempt to win the attention of audiences. Activists frame themselves by emphasizing aspects of their identities, experiences, and qualifications that they believe will persuade audiences that they are worthy of being listened to. They seek to persuade audiences that they are deserving of standing, or they have the right to speak and be heard, on a certain issue. Motherhood is a powerful basis of standing and a pliable identity, as it has been used by a diverse set of actors on a range of issues. 

Data and Methods

To understand how opposing activists in the gun debate frame themselves and, in doing so, construct meaning around guns, gun policy, and who is deserving of being heard on this issue, I conducted a comparative case study of two opposing activists in the gun debate. I focus on Shannon Watts, representing gun control and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and Dana Loesch, representing gun rights and the National Rifle Association (NRA). While case studies tend to position organizations or movements as the unit of analysis, I designate the individual as the unit of analysis to capture how individual activists portray themselves. 

Table 1. Self-Portrayals of Shannon Watts and Dana Loesch

Depictions of Shannon WattsDepictions of Dana Loesch
Media interviewsn=31n=32
Social median=2n=2

To capture how Watts and Loesch frame themselves, I focused on how they talk about themselves in media interviews, as well as communications on social media, speaker’s pages, and organizational websites (see Table 1). I collected this data by mining Boolean search results on Google for “Shannon Watts,” “Shannon Watts AND guns,” “Dana Loesch,” and “Dana Loesch AND guns.” I also searched their names on Twitter and LinkedIn. I included all credible sources in which it was evident that Watts or Loesch were speaking for themselves, or they had control over the narrative. I excluded duplicates, in which the same interview was republished, and news media articles authored by journalists that report on Watts and/or Loesch. Most of the sample is comprised of media interviews in the form of articles, podcasts, and videos in which Watts and Loesch provide detailed responses to questions posed by media personnel (see Tables 1 and 2).

Table 2. Characteristics of Media Interviews of Shannon Watts and Dana Loesch

Depictions of Shannon WattsDepictions of Dana Loesch

I coded data as it was collected, transcribing videos and podcasts and uploading all documents to qualitative coding software atlas.ti. I used grounded theory, a qualitative approach that emphasizes drawing conclusions from data and looking to data to build theory, as opposed to relying on pre-conceived expectations, such as with hypothesis-testing (Glaser and Strauss 1967). By taking this approach, I identified motherhood as a common theme in how Watts and Loesch portrayed themselves while defining and constructing the responsibilities of motherhood differently. I focused coding on portrayals of motherhood, differentiating between individualistic and collectivistic maternal frames. I also noted the extent to which Watts and Loesch frame themselves beyond motherhood to understand what other claims to standing they make, if any. I analyzed the data by looking for consistencies and inconsistencies in how each activist portrays themselves and how this self-portrayal contrasts with that of their opponent. 

Motherhood as a Source of Standing

To assert standing in the gun debate, Watts and Loesch frame themselves as mothers. In doing so, they use motherhood to claim a distinct perspective and expertise, rooted in their gendered identity as the caretakers of the family, that merits space in the gun debate. They argue that gun policy is within their scope of their authority because it involves their primary responsibility, the safety and wellbeing of children, portraying their involvement in the gun debate as an authentic expression of their selfless concern for others. Table 3 illustrates the frequency at which Watts and Loesch emphasize motherhood in self-portrayals. 

Table 3. Frequency of Shannon Watts’ and Dana Loesch’s Portrayals of Motherhood

Shannon Watts, n=34Dana Loesch, n=34
Mother (to own kids)97%50%
Community mothering35%9%

Shannon Watts entered the gun debate by creating a Facebook page titled “One Million Moms for Gun Control.” Watts consistently describes herself as a stay-at-home mom of five children, suggesting that it was her concern as a mother that led her to become an activist. She often tells an origin story in which she was at home, fulfilling gendered parenting and domestic responsibilities, when she was called into activism. Watts recounts:

I’m a mom of five, and I can remember folding laundry as I was watching TV the day of the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012. And CNN started saying it looks like there’s a school shooting. And it did not look good… That 20 babies and six other educators would be slaughtered in the sanctity of an elementary school was devastating, but then to hear pundits and lawmakers immediately get on television and say… the solution is more guns.

Watts uses motherhood to claim standing in two ways: as the responsibility to protect her own children; and as concern for the well-being of all children. To emphasize her personal stake in the gun debate, Watts cites her own children’s safety amidst an epidemic of mass shootings. In one anecdote, she describes her son’s state of panic after learning that a mass shooter had targeted a showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. 

Additionally, Watts contends that her responsibilities as a mother include caretaking of the larger community. She presents mothering as a communal responsibility that extends beyond the nuclear family. In the following excerpt, she describes her motivation to advocate for “our communities… our children.” 

As a mom, I can no longer afford to sit back and watch the horrible toll that gun violence takes on our communities – particularly for our children… More than 2 million children face this danger every day: easy access to unsecured guns in the home.

Here, Watts increases her stake in the gun debate by emphasizing her concern for all children who are at risk of suffering harm. In doing so, she stretches the boundaries of motherhood as a source of standing to include concern for a much larger community.

In contrast, Dana Loesch tells an origin story that highlights her start as a “mom blogger,” homeschooling her two sons, before entering talk radio and becoming a political commentator. Loesch argues her position on guns is informed by her identity as a mom who is responsible for protecting her children. 

I’m a mom, that’s why I own guns… I don’t outsource my security. I trust in my own skills and training and wish everyone had that same self-confidence.

Loesch suggests that as a mother, she has an inherent drive to protect her own children. As a mother who is armed and capable, she also has the capacity and expertise to do so.  

Loesch offers a narrower definition of motherhood than Watts does, focusing exclusively on her immediate nuclear family. Loesch uses motherhood to claim standing as the right to protect her own children how she sees fit, including with firearms. She portrays motherhood in line with conservative understanding as the right to be “free from” government interference. Unlike Watts, Loesch doesn’t use motherhood to claim standing over a larger community of children. Instead, Loesch suggests she represents a larger community of parents who believe in the right to protect their children with guns.

Beyond Motherhood 

Motherhood is central to the way Watts and Loesch frame themselves, but they deploy it differently. For Watts, motherhood is a primary identity that eclipses other duties. In contrast, motherhood is one among several identities that Loesch amplifies. Watts portrays motherhood as an all-encompassing primary identity while also asserting a “single-issue” focus on gun control. In contrast, Loesch emphasizes motherhood alongside political and regional identities that have racial and class connotations. Additionally, Loesch speaks out on a range of issues, not limited to guns. 

To bolster her image as a mother, Watts also dispels any potential “conflicts of interest,” such as political or economic motivations that could compromise her credibility. She claims that prior to her awakening as an activist, she stayed out of politics. In a podcast, Watts explains:

I was never politically active in any way, except to vote. I was a corporate communications executive for about 15 years, and when my kids got to be about middle school age, I thought okay I want to stay home, this is when they get into trouble. And so that’s what I was doing… minding my own business in suburban Indiana, and then Sandy Hook happened.

In addition to highlighting her recent entry into politics, Watts presents herself as a non-partisan single-issue voter willing to vote for whichever candidate has the best position on gun control. Often describing herself as a “full-time volunteer,” Watts is clear that her efforts as an activist are not renumerated, despite her skill and experience as a corporate executive. 

Loesch, in contrast, leans into multiple identities. Loesch describes herself as a member of “flyover nation,” a regional identity with race and class connotations. “Flyover nation” is a conservative talking point that references white, religious, and patriotic working- and middle-class people of middle America, which are juxtaposed to coastal elites. As the daughter of a working-class single mother, Loesch claims she learned the value of hard work, family, and religion. During her time spent in the rural Ozark region with her grandparents, she also learned the value of firearms for hunting and self-defense. 

Additionally, Loesch is unabashedly political. Loesch portrays her position on guns as a natural extension of her identity as a libertarian or “punk rock conservative” opposed to government overreach. She portrays this as “who she is”: an expression of her authentic ideological beliefs that are rooted in her childhood experiences and connection to flyover nation. Loesch explains:

What you see is what you get, I don’t put on a front when I go on television… [if] you’ve been out with me before, you’ve bowled with me, you know… where I come from, and why I operate the way I operate, and why I’m so passionate about certain things.

Loesch refutes profit as a motivation behind her stance on guns, although she is a paid employee of the NRA. Loesch avoids acknowledging her paid status, and instead describes herself as a dues-paying member of the NRA. She implies that her opinions on guns are authentic and not influenced by her employer or financial gains.

In sum, Watts highlights her identity as a mother as an all-encompassing identity while denying political and economic interests. Loesch amplifies her identity as a mother alongside a kind of intersectional regional identity that has strong race, class, religious, and political connotations. While Loesch is explicitly political, she tries to redirect attention from her status as an employee of the NRA. Both Watts and Loesch attempt to use motherhood as a platform to make claims, but in doing so, they construct motherhood differently and in ways that align with or inform their position on guns. 

Discussion and Conclusion

Activists make strategic choices about how to portray themselves by amplifying identities they believe will help them to gain standing with different audiences. Building upon the extensive literature on framing, I argue that activists frame themselves alongside the policies they advocate. In addition to convincing their audience(s) of the worthiness of their position on an issue, activists must convince their audience that they are credible and worthy to speak and be listened to. By emphasizing certain identities, activists make a case for their expertise, authority, and/or authenticity to be heard on a given issue. 

Motherhood is an identity that has served as a potent source of credibility for activists in various contexts (Boris 1989; Pardo 1990; Naples 1992). Motherhood is so powerful because it is a role and status valued across communities and cultures. Mothers are known as the caretakers of the family, and they are presumed to have a selfless and unrivaled devotion to their children. They are not paid for the work of caring for their children but undertake this responsibility as an expression of their authentic love and maternal commitment. When activists portray themselves as mothers, they suggest that their position on an issue is merited because of their authority, as those responsible for the wellbeing of children; authenticity, as selfless caretakers motivated by genuine concern; and expertise, as women with a specific set of knowledge and skills.

In some cases, motherhood may be used simultaneously by opponents in a political debate, such as with Shannon Watts and Dana Loesch. Although they both argue that motherhood informs their position on guns, they construct motherhood differently. While Watts envisions motherhood as a communal responsibility, Loesch portrays motherhood as an individual right. These typologies of motherhood are not original but have been used by a legacy of activists before them (Boris 1989). Watts’ version of motherhood as a communal responsibility corresponds with other activists on the left, such as in community welfare, anti-drunk driving, and peace movements. Meanwhile, Loesch’s vision of motherhood reflects the emphasis on individual rights and responsibilities shared by other conservative activists. 

This variation in how motherhood is constructed, and the notion that it can be used by opponents in a political debate simultaneously, suggest the pliability and flexibility of this identity as a platform to make claims. Activists will construct motherhood as it corresponds with other aspects of their identity, political claims, and assumptions about what will resonate with audiences. While some identities may correspond with specific issues, particularly identity-based issues such as immigration and racial justice, motherhood can serve as a source of credibility in various debates.  


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Appendix A. Self-Portrayals of Shannon Watts and Dana Loesch

Shannon WattsDana Loesch
SourceDateFormatSource Date Format 
1Pop SugarMay 6, 2018ArticleCNNMar 1, 2018Video
2HealthApr 10, 2018ArticleABCFeb 25, 2018Video
3ForbesFeb 23, 2018ArticleCNNFeb 23, 2018Video
4OffspringJun 4, 2018ArticleFOXMar 6, 2018Video
5MamalodeDec 14, 2016ArticleTony Katz TodayJul 14, 2017Article
6NBCApr 19, 2014ArticleNBCMay 4, 2018Article
7PhilanthropyMar 23, 2018ArticleThe FederalistFeb 22, 2018Podcast
8Insatiable with Ali Shapiro Jul 19, 2017PodcastConservative Book ClubJun 23, 2016Podcast
9VogueJun 2, 2017ArticleCSPANJun 20, 2016Video
10PeopleDec 30, 2016ArticleTeam Never QuitFeb 1, 2017Podcast
11The WrapMay 5, 2018VideoRiverfront TimesFeb 24, 2010Article
12End Times Pep TalkFeb 14, 2018PodcastThe Glenn Beck ProgramMar 20, 2017Podcast
13SalonApr 22, 2018ArticlePJ MediaJul 30, 2011Video
14CAFÉFeb 28, 2018Podcast573 MagazineMar, 2015Article
15Eclecta BlogMar 16, 2018PodcastNRA NewsApr 15, 2015Video
16The Costa ReportMar 19, 2013PodcastNRA NewsAug 30, 2014Video
17Market WatchFeb 19, 2018ArticleThe Glenn Beck ProgramOct 17, 2017Podcast
18NPRJun 17, 2016ArticleThe Glenn Beck ProgramOct 23, 2014Article
19CrookedJan 5, 2018PodcastFoxSep 29, 2015Video
20StirMar 17, 2014ArticleFox News InsiderMar 1, 2018Article
21InStyleOct 17, 2018VideoNewsweekSep 27, 2018Article
22Comedy CentralJun 11, 2018VideoNewsweekJun 29, 2018Article
23Washington State IndivisibleFeb 21, 2018PodcastThe HillFeb 24, 2018Article
24PoliticoAug 7, 2018ArticleRedStateMar 27, 2015Article
25Commonwealth ClubMar 31, 2016PodcastThe Western Journal: Conservative TribuneDec 27, 2018Article
26Mother JonesSep/Oct, 2014ArticleThe Well Armed WomanN/AArticle
27CrookedDec 13, 2018PodcastCNNFeb 22, 2018Video
28MSNBCMar 11, 2013VideoFOXFeb 22, 2018Video
29Oshman Family JCCApr 6, 2016VideoRealClear PoliticsFeb 22, 2018Article
30Buildingboys.netOct 9, 2013ArticleNRATVApr 10, 2017Video
31NPRJun 17, 2016PodcastPoliticoFeb 22, 2018Video
32TwitterJan 10, 2019Social MediaInstagramNov 14, 2017Social Media
33LinkedInMay 4, 2019Social MediaTwitterFeb 26, 2019Social Media
34Moms Demand Action websiteMay 4, 2019OtherPremiere Speaker’s Bureau Feb 26, 2019Other