Social Change: One Petition at a Time?
As a high school student, I remember the excitement of going door-to-door to solicit signatures on petitions of various sorts.
Adding one’s name to a list of other names on a single piece of paper may not seem consequential. But when that sheet joins hundreds or thousands of others, suddenly the list has the potential to gain notice.
One petition I promoted urged people across the U.S. to boycott buying table grapes, in support of the Latino/a grape pickers on strike in California. Organized by legendary union leader, Cesar Chavez, the movement united farm workers to demand a living wage and decent working conditions.
In the case of the United Farm Workers, such petitions contributed to what became a national boycott of table grapes (lasting from 1965-70). Although many contemporary farm workers still suffer unacceptable working conditions and low wages, the boycott produced the first union contracts for farm workers, who began a national conversation about better pay, benefits, and protections–a conversation that continues today.
In those days, collecting thousands of signatures for a petition meant having a well-organized, healthy cadre of footsoldiers. Nowadays, websites such as Change.org make the process infinitely easier.
Take the case of Amazon. A current online petition urges Amazon to change the name of the Amazon Mom program to Amazon Family.
Sure, names are just one (small) part of the problem of challenging gender stereotypes and expectations. But “starting somewhere” to promote social justice means just that: starting somewhere. And changing the very public name of a very popular program is a great start.
At the individual level, we all know how names matter to our sense of personal identity. The case of a nine-year-old girl from New Zealand is instructive. Desperate to change her name, she found legal redress: In 2008, “a judge in New Zealand made a young girl a ward of court so that she could change the name she hated – Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii. Judge Rob Murfitt said that the name embarrassed the nine-year-old and could expose her to teasing,” such that the judge termed the name a “social disability.”
At the corporate level, CEOs know how names matter to a company’s bottom line. In the U.S., despite the enormous expense and hassle involved, over 1,900 companies changed their names last year. They had diverse reasons for doing so, but whatever the motivations, their directors decided that the benefit of changing the company name outweighed the cost. Financial managers would only undertake such an ambitious and complicated shift if the symbolic resonance to names mattered.
And they do matter. While changing the Amazon Mom program to the Amazon Family won’t solve the problem of patriarchy in the modern world, that corporate name change will give boys who consider what kind of fathers they want to become (inseminators vs. hands-on parents?) one more model of where they might see themselves as involved fathers (as part of an “Amazon Family”) . . . and one less model of where their masculinity is not welcome (as an “Amazon Mom”).
Besides, from Amazon’s perspective, such a name change would make good business sense. If a dedicated father can “see himself” in an “Amazon Family” program (but not in the “Amazon Mom” program), he’s more likely to commit precious resources–family funds–to buy consumer goods on that website, and not another. And in a capitalist world, promoting business ethics from the standpoint of the financial bottom line may (for better or worse) be our most realistic option.
You can sign the Amazon petition here.