Motherhood -- it's the purest of roles, bound up in myth and imagery with everything that's good and wholesome. And never is it symbolically more powerful than during times of war, when a mother not only embodies all that a nation's soldiers fight to protect -- country, home and family -- but inspires the courage that makes their self-sacrifice possible. It's what men are willing to die for: freedom, Mom and apple pie.
So when a mother who stands to lose -- or has lost -- a child in war speaks, people tend to listen. That's why so many people paid attention to Cindy Sheehan when she first went public with her anguish over her son Casey's death and her campaign to end the war in Iraq. And it's why Tammy Pruett, an Idaho mother who has four sons serving in Iraq and faithfully supports the war, has also gained an audience.
Both these women have something to tell us about the conflict that we don't get from the political pundits and military experts -- something that hits home in a way that the loftiest call to arms or the most impassioned oppositional rhetoric rarely do. But as the debate over the war heats up, these maternal voices are in danger of being co-opted on both sides and losing their moral authority. They're at risk of becoming mere mouthpieces in a policy battle colored by personal ambitions and special interests -- and thus undermining the longstanding power of the politics of motherhood.
That politics has a long history. The right to maternal expression and protest is one that's respected across diverse cultures and nations (whether democracies or dictatorships). Belief in the sacred role of mother gives political mothers' groups a power that they willingly tap. They have used it to argue that they are better qualified than others to make decisions about which causes are worth the ultimate sacrifice of life.
The mothers' groups formed just in the last century to speak out on issues of war, peace and justice are as diverse as they are plentiful. Some have organized around the motherhood identity to try to avert conflict or to protest government oppression. Early in the 20th century, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom formed to protest World War I. Here in the United States, the Vietnam War gave rise to the anti-draft group Another Mother for Peace, and the Cold War to the anti-nuclear Women Strike for Peace. Elsewhere, the CoMadres in El Salvador denounced government human rights abuses during the civil war of 1981-1992. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina protested the disappearances of their children under the nation's military dictatorship that ran the country from 1976 to 1983.
On the other hand, numerous other mothers' groups have rallied around their flags during times of conflict, international or domestic. The Women's Section of the Navy League was the largest of many patriotic preparedness leagues during WWI. The American Gold Star Mothers -- still in existence today -- was also born during WWI, to recognize mothers who lost sons in conflict. In Argentina, the women's group Fatherland and Home was organized in 1930 to fight communism. And in Chile, Gen. Augusto Pinochet set up the National Secretariat of Women in 1973 to emphasize the values of patriotism and domesticity.
Whichever side they fall on, many of these mothers' groups have acquired substantial political voices and in many cases have won important concessions from powerful forces. Their strength sprang, to start with, from their refusal to play by the usual political rules and their use of unconventional, informal methods of protest or action. The CoMadres in El Salvador, for instance, occupied the presidential palace in 1984 for four days, insisting that President Jose Napoleon Duarte meet with them. Though he eventually sent only a cabinet minister to talk to them, their protests helped draw world attention to the war and human rights abuses in El Salvador. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina staged noisy protests during the World Cup in 1978, begging foreign journalists to cover the story of their disappeared children. When they did, the Argentine government faced harsh international censure.
Mothers and mother-led groups on both sides of the Iraq debate have taken a similar tack: Cindy Sheehan set up Camp Casey outside President Bush's Crawford, Tex., home and then led a march in Washington last month; Deborah Johns of Marine Moms, a group that supports the war, headed the "You Don't Speak for Me, Cindy" bus tour. But in the process, they are attracting politicians and spinmeisters who want to glom onto them for their own purposes. Both Tammy Pruett, by making appearances with President Bush, and Deborah Johns, in her collaboration with the conservative political group Move America Forward, are allowing themselves to be swept up in political agendas that go far beyond the war. In the same way, Cindy Sheehan's associations with controversial left-wing filmmaker Michael Moore and former U.S. attorney general-turned-peacemaker Ramsey Clark risk putting her unique mother's voice in the service of other interests.
The most influential political motherhood groups are those that resist piggybacking on formal political parties or more established organizations with overlapping agendas. The Vietnam era's Another Mother for Peace refused formal alliances with numerous sympathetic groups and kept its focus on the welfare of the women's draft-age sons. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo intentionally kept their campaign independent from other sympathetic human rights movements because they knew that their voices as mothers were the most powerful weapons they had for winning some measure of justice and recognition for their children's deaths.
Today's mothers' groups, though, are claiming the right to contribute to political discourse above and beyond their sons' involvement in the Iraq war, while insisting that they are not politicians. Pruett and Johns claim that they take no political position on the war. But their rhetoric of "support the troops and their mission" is strikingly similar to the White House's. Pruett, in fact, might not have spoken up at all but for the White House's urging. Her unusual situation with so many sons in Iraq was a convenient sell for the administration at the height of Sheehan's protest in Crawford. Now, her voice is even swallowed up by President Bush's when he uses her words in speeches about the war: "Tammy says this . . . 'I know that if something happens to one of the boys, they would leave this world doing what they believe, what they think is right for our country. . . .' America lives in freedom because of families like the Pruetts."
Sheehan's associations with an eclectic mix of liberal groups -- including the far-left ANSWER Coalition -- that appeared at the Washington march last month have likewise muddled the clarity of her voice. Yet preserving the purity of the average mother's voice has always been essential to motherhood groups. The most influential have coached mothers not to pontificate on subjects beyond their expertise. They have stuck to reciting their personal stories with a mind-numbing consistency and presenting a self-deprecating attitude about their potential to influence social change. The refrain heard most often from the Argentine mothers was, "We're just a bunch of crazy old women" -- an ironic reference to the dictatorship's attempts to discredit their protests by labeling them "las locas de la Plaza de Mayo."
But Sheehan, with her name-calling of Bush, her finger-pointing at unrelated issues like the administration's response to the flooding in New Orleans and her preaching on issues on which she's no expert, such as U.S.-Israeli relations, has fallen into the trap. Her pronouncements distract from her real qualification to speak out in public: being a mother who has lost a son in the war.
The truth about all the mothers engaged in today's debate is that they aren't so different from each other. If we look closely at Sheehan's most heartfelt talks about her son, she's not really so far from the American Gold Star Mothers, who have also lost children in combat but whose message is "Support the Troops." When Sheehan spoke of her son during an appearance at the University of Maryland three weeks ago, you could have heard a pin drop. In the same way, when we look at the individual testimonies of Pruett or selected Gold Star Mothers with children in Iraq, their patriotism becomes secondary to their maternal voices. "I only speak for our family and for our experiences and the boys' experiences in Iraq. And I'm not out here to be a poster child for anyone," says Pruett about the possibility that she could lose one of her sons.
If Sheehan could speak simply as Casey's mother, she might provoke serious thought in those still on the fence about the war. If the support-our-troops-mothers could lower the volume on their boisterous allegiance to the U.S. mission, they, too, could have a valuable say in these discussions. And then we all might learn something about Iraq that we didn't think we already knew.
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Meghan Gibbons, a PhD candidate in comparative literature at the University of Maryland, is writing her doctoral dissertation on political motherhood.