A Bold Voice for Motherhood

Mary Ann Glendon, Helen Alvaré, and Mary Suarez Hamm.

It's pretty likely you know the names of the first two, but haven't a clue as to the identity of the third.

Called on by the Vatican, Hamm, a 41-year-old mother of 11 children, testified at the United Nations in New York this fall to reiterate the Catholic Church's viewpoint on improving the status of women around the world. She made her presentation before a committee reviewing the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995) in Beijing.

Hamm may have risen in the ranks of lay Catholic women leadership through the address, following in the footsteps of Alvaré, who is the U.S. bishops’ leading spokesperson on pro-life issues, and Glendon, the Harvard University law professor who led the Vatican delegation at the conference in Beijing in 1995.

The Vatican has observer status at the United Nations, which allows it to address issues that affect people throughout the world from a uniquely Catholic perspective, without having any vested territorial interest. To assist in this task, the Vatican calls on articulate and accomplished women like Hamm, who are eager to serve the Church.

“Father may have the last word, but every other word comes from women,” said Hamm of the Church's institutions, such as hospitals, schools, and other social service organizations. Priests help to serve in sacramental roles, she said, but women have long formed the leadership in those institutions.

Hamm, who lives in Bethesda, Md., is the administrative director of a crisis pregnancy center in Silver Spring, Md., that was formed by Catholics to meet the needs of Hispanic women in the Washington area. She also helped launch the National Institute of Womanhood (NIW) in 1990, “to promote authentic womanhood.”

She described NIW, also based in Bethesda, Md., as an “evolving organization,” that has a mailing list of 1,500 and has participated in U.N.-sponsored convocations in Beijing, Cairo, Copenhagen, and Istanbul.

Her work at NIW helps her “face larger issues,” of why single women come into the crisis pregnancy center “with broken bodies and broken hearts.” In working for a public policy group, she knows that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

For all her accomplishments outside the home, the Harvard graduate seems most proud of the work that she has done inside her home, raising her children with her husband Peter, a physician. She spent 18 years as a stay-at-home mother and has cut back her work at the crisis pregnancy center in the past year to spend more time with her children.

“We shortchange girls when we tell them you can do it all,” Hamm told the Register. “They're stressed, and the kids suffer.”

She now works 20 hours a week at Centro Tepeyac, named for the hill in Mexico where Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego. Hamm takes the summers off.

She stressed character education with her own children and found that they performed better in school through watching less television and speaking more with their family members.

“The less TV and the more interaction you have the more you learn,” since television is a passive medium, said the native of Cuba.

Of the three eldest Hamm children, two attend Harvard and the other is at Princeton. Though Hamm is proud of their achievements, she contends that forming children who can dedicate themselves and love one person in the life-long commitment of marriage is the ultimate test of a parent.

“[A mother's] measure of success should be how our kids are doing, emotionally, spiritually, and as citizens of the country,” she said. To do that, it's “critical that the mother be there from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. The after school period is the most common time when teenage pregnancy occurs, she said.

Hamm may be taking center stage at the moment, but she gives a lot of credit to her husband of 21 years. “He takes a day off work each week and instead of playing golf, he spends it with the kids,” coaching sports or helping with Boy Scout activities, she said.

Her U.N. speech from the Vatican desk was “anti-climactic,” in the sense that members were shuffling in and out of the assembly room during her speech. Each nation received a copy of the speech, however, and she said delivering the speech was a memorable experience.

The United Nations needs to pay more attention to the “natural rights,” which come from “motherhood and the role of women within the family,” Hamm said. Moreover, “for most women, the role of wife and mother is central to their identity, happiness, and life.”

Governments should not deny women the freedom to have children, Hamm said, especially through forced sterilization or abortion.

“That means that parents must be able to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children.”

In addition, stay-at-home mothers need to be valued by governments, she said. Leaders also need to “ensure that mothers have the freedom to choose to work at home by striving to guarantee a family income to one wageearner so that mothers are not forced to work outside the home,” she said in her U.N. speech.

Hamm, who also called on governments to ensure that mothers who choose to work outside the home are not discriminated against, said she has not received much feedback on how the speech was received at the United Nations. In the fullness of time, however, is when she seeks her response.

William Murray is based in Kensington, Md.