Walls of Moms: Maternal Bodies and Public Space in Portland and Argentina

On July 18, 2020 a group of mothers gathered on the streets of Portland. These women, the majority of whom were white, stood together as a living barrier between BLM protestors and armed federal agents. Wearing yellow and holding sunflowers, the women represented a particular vision of white, middle-class, US motherhood. Some of these women suggested that they felt called upon when George Floyd called out for his mother; others said that they couldn’t sit back while federal officers began taking protestors from the streets in unmarked vans.

A “Wall of Moms” stands between Black Lives Matters protestors and armed federal agents in Portland, Oregon in 2020. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Media outlets quickly picked up and widely circulated the image of this wall of mothers. Activists and scholars have correctly criticized the laudatory attention that these white women have garnered from the media. They’ve compared this coverage to the media’s erasure and criticism of BIPOC mothers whose battles for justice have long preceded and remained constant throughout the Walls of Moms. This wall of white mothers exists, then, at an intersection of power, autonomy, class, and race that offers an opportunity to critically examine the role of the “mother” in the United States. What version of motherhood is considered valid in a US on the brink of authoritarianism? By whom? As the federal government increasingly validates the actions of armed militias and empowers federal forces to pick peaceful protesters of the streets, how do privileged mothers use their power to resist or support state violence? What maternal activism is visible in the media and how are different types of maternal activism framed in public discourse? What is considered heroic, what is dismissed, and why?

Mothers occupy a unique political place in moments of democratic unrest and state violence. Governments often frame maternal bodies as sites of both physical and cultural reproduction and, to a certain extent, moral certitude. Comparing the Wall of Moms to Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo (the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo), a group of mothers who publicly protested the disappearance of their children during the Argentine military dictatorship (1976–83), helps us better understand a particular white, “western,” middle-class vision of motherhood in the service of political change and continuity. Unsurprisingly, only certain mothers can occupy particular discursive and physical spaces. In Argentina, the military regime and complicit members of society demonized and dismissed Las Madres as crazy, and certain politically conservative circles still do. However, the transitional government of the early 1980s and subsequent democratic administrations respected and celebrated Las Madres for their bravery. Las Madres and their sister organization, Las Abuelas (the Grandmothers), have garnered praise and remained popular with international human rights organizations from their emergence to the present day.

Between 1976 and 1983, Argentina’s military regime waged what it referred to as a “dirty war” against “subversive” elements of society – students, professors, intellectuals, socialists, queer people, union organizers, and laborers – to reestablish law, order, and “traditional” values. (Sound familiar?) Though the government maintained that they were not committing acts of violence, they disappeared between 10,000 and 30,000 people. “The disappeared,” or los desaparecidos, were taken from their homes and the streets to clandestine government facilities where government security agents tortured and most often killed them. These Argentines were then buried in unmarked mass graves or dumped into the river.

In response, Las Madres, a group of mostly working- and middle-class housewives from the capital city of Buenos Aires and its surroundings, began gathering in the Plaza de Mayo, in front of the presidential palace, to ask where their disappeared children were. These “children,” were in many cases young adults whose political “subversion” ranged from innocuous (listening to rock music) to militant (joining organized urban, socialist guerilla groups to resist the fascist regime). When their adult children disappeared, the mothers individually pursued paths towards justice – they went to the police, filed reports, and asked for help. But when these methods were unsuccessful, the Madres began to covertly share their stories and decided to occupy public spaces and make demands. It is important to note that the mothers were not involved in their children’s political activism before or after their disappearances: they did not want to overthrow the regime or create a socialist revolution. Las Madres spoke of their activism as something that they had to do; it was only because the government had taken their children that they were forced to occupy public space in this way.

Las Madres gathered weekly in the Plaza with photos of their children. When the regime said they couldn’t sit, they walked. They were joined by Las Abuelas, who searched for the children who had been born to disappeared mothers in captivity and clandestinely given to families loyal to the regime. Las Madres and Las Abuelas deployed their identities as mothers and housewives to protest the disappearance of their children, effectively using the traditional, “family-based” logic and values of the regime to destabilize and invalidate its politics.1 It was only logical that “good” mothers would look for their lost children; once they were found, Las Madres would return home. It was difficult for the regime to challenge this without contradicting the values for which they ostensibly stood.

Detail from Carlos Terríbili’s ¡Basta!, a commemoration of las Madres de Plaza de Mayo. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Las Madres strategically depoliticized the dictatorship’s narrative about their children, which cast them as dangerous, malicious, and violent – as enemies of the state. They emphasized the disappeared as children first and foremost; every other identity – activist, organizer, citizen – was subsumed within or elided by their identity as a disappeared child. To figure their adult children as helpless and innocent was a way to endear them to the silent majority in Argentina who had ignored the regime’s violence. The government hadn’t targeted “subversives” but children, innocent people the state was meant to protect.

Like Las Madres, the Wall of Moms accessed privilege through their representation of a white, middle-class maternal ideal. Also like Las Madres, the Wall of Moms not only uses their identity as mothers to protect but also to elide or undercut the politics of the movement itself. In Argentina, it was the socialist revolution; in Portland, the BLM movement. And again, like Las Madres, the Wall of Moms uses the rhetoric of childhood to shape the narrative. White mothers identifying George Floyd’s call for his mother as a summons to act draws on long-existing narratives of white mothers as the “saviors” of children of color. George Floyd was certainly someone’s child, but he was not a child. He was a black adult man who was tortured and murdered by police officers. Positioning him as a child erases the complexities of his life. Would these mothers not feel summoned if the recording of him calling out for his own mother hadn’t become viral? Is it only that which makes his death a tragedy to them? Where have they been for all of the other BIPOC children, such as Tamir Rice or Treyvon Martin?2

The core difference between Las Madres and the Wall of Moms is their proximity to tragedy and violence and their ability to “go home” or “go back to normal.” It is the difference between allyship and activism. The Wall of Moms can return home, to their living children, at the end of the day. They can decide not to march or act as human shields if they choose with no immediate consequences in their daily lives. They can return to complacency or complicity within the system and reap its rewards. It’s the mothers who can’t return to that before space who are demonized and silenced. Las Madres used the rhetoric of apolitics, but they were not protesting for someone else’s children. Their own children had been targeted, disappeared, tortured, and murdered. Whether they identified their actions as political or not, Las Madres could no longer be complacent with the system that their children had resisted, and even if they didn’t directly work to bring down the system, their actions helped end it.

BIPOC mothers in the US fight for their children every day in big and small ways, and their experiences and expressions of feeling are often misconstrued or ignored. A wall of Black mothers would likely be met with more than tear gas. The Wall of Moms performed allyship in their efforts to use their privilege to support BLM, but this allyship was undercut when the founder of the movement attempted to turn it into a business and refused to incorporate BIPOC voices. In response, many of the mothers who originally joined the Wall of Moms have now joined Moms United for Black Lives, an organization that centers anti-racism. In thinking about how the media, politics, public perception, and scholarship celebrates and punishes different visions of motherhood, especially in moments of political unrest and violence, we need to continue to examine the way in which maternal bodies occupy spaces for personal and political reasons and how those bodies exist at critical intersections of power and change.

Notes

  1. Marysa Navarro, “The Personal is Political: Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo,” in Power and Popular Protest: Latin American Social Movements, eds. Manuel A. Garreton Merino and Susan Eckstein (University of California Press, 2001), 241. See also; Mabel Bellucci, “Childless Motherhood: Interview with Nora Cortinas, a Mother of the Plaza de Mayo, Argentina,” Reproductive Health Matters 7, no. 13 (May 1999): 83–88. Return to text.
  2. Please see any of these works on the experiences and activism of Black women and mothers in the US: Cecelie Berry, ed., Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood (Broadway Books, 2005); Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross, A Black Woman’s History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2020); bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism (Routledge, 2015); Dani McClain, We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood (Bold Type Books, 2019); Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, ed., How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (Haymarket Books, 2017). Return to text.

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