Volume > Issue > The Passion of the 'Mothers of the Disappeared' in Argentina

The Passion of the ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ in Argentina


By Jean Bethke Elshtain | January-February 1992
Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Centennial Professor of Political Science and Professor of Philosophy at VanderbiIt University. A Contributing Editor of the NOR, she has been a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. Her books include Public Man, Private Woman; Women in Social and Political Thought; Meditations on Modern Political Thought; Women and War; and Power Trips and Other Journeys. A Longer and somewhat different version of this article will appear in Representations of Motherhood, edited by Meryle Kaplan et al. (Yale University Press). Copyright 1992 Jean Bethke Elshtain.

Feminists remain skeptical about political evocations of Motherhood. Too often representations of “the mother” buttress a status quo that denies women political adulthood. Even more problematically, the construction of mother-as-citizen may take a form, deeded to us by the Greeks but re-encoded in the political life and thought of the West, that I tagged “The Spartan Mother” in my recent book Women and War. The Spartan Mother as “female citizen” serves civic ideals by rearing her sons to be soldier-citizens and her daughters to be the future mothers of soldier-citizens. The Spartan Mother’s relation to the polity (whether ancient polls or modern nation-state) is most powerfully and poignantly signified through the sacrifice in war of her warrior-son who dies to protect her, Mom, and a homeland construed in feminized terms. In America the Spartan Mother became the “Gold Star Mother” who earned civic honor through her son’s death and thereby, whether knowingly and eagerly or tacitly and reluctantly, shored up the defense of the polity as the highest good.

But other constructions challenged the Spartan Mother, most importantly the Madonna, history’s Beautiful Soul, who exemplified values and virtues at odds with the world of men and arms. Christianity got transformed into a civic religion through extraordinary wrenchings that fused representations of the Spartan Mother to the Madonna/Beautiful Soul, all too often stilling the voice that ranks the protection of individual life above the claims of the state, that valorizes the domestic against the civic. There are times when that voice erupts and mothers spurn sanctioned representations of their domesticity as a form of political quietude — viz., in the face of torture and disappearance of their children at the hands of a repressive regime. The authoritarian state is challenged in the name of Motherhood. Women invade public spaces as Mothers, seeking to delegitimize state power by displaying their politicized Motherhood as a form of protest politics. They transgress the boundary between private and public and turn the state’s proclaimed piety about the sanctity of the family against it.

My exemplars will be Las Madres, the Argentine Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. By politicizing culturally shared meanings of Motherhood, Las Madres shattered the systematic deceit that had shrouded the disappearances of their children. They spoke a double-language: the anguish of a mother’s loss and the protest language of human rights. In their opposition and new-found militance, Las Madres refused to sacralize new victims. They sought justice, not revenge. They were a stunningly effective force against a repressive militarist regime. Questions are now surfacing concerning the long-range effects of this politicization of Motherhood around the disappearances of loved ones. Are Las Madres key actors in Argentina’s tentative moves to constitutionalism and democracy? Will their narratives of personal loss and tragedy, repeated incessantly, eventually make them politically marginal? Will the label “las locas,” by which the military regime hoped to discredit them as they marched and organized, eventually stick?

And, finally, is this politics of Motherhood as a rebellious and critical force most effective within a Catholic society? It is in overwhelmingly Catholic countries that the politics of Motherhood has mobilized previously apolitical women and sent them into the streets, public squares, courts, and legislatures. They claim and proclaim representations their opponents find difficult to counter, for the latter too share the veneration of the Mother (or must at least pay her public obeisance); they too cannot disdain the tears of the Madonna. Protestant Motherhood lacks this clout, having been stripped of a female object of veneration. The Holy Mother, then, is deeply entangled in the creation of unruly Mothers prepared to tangle with juntas, militia, secret police, the entire apparatus of the authoritarian state.

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