As a woman who is also a military veteran, I find myself lately gravitating to research about the intersection of womanhood and war. Ukraine’s army is brimming with female volunteers; in fact, women are more represented in their military than in the US. But there’s a seemingly infinite research that delves into the ways that mothers resist war, political violence, or oppression.
From Russia to Ukraine to Poland
The BBC recently reported that Russian mothers are desperately worried for their sons in the Russian military. A mix of conscripts and contracted soldiers, none are reported to have known about their impending deployment to war. Meanwhile in Poland, parents have left strollers at the border for mothers fleeing the war in Ukraine. The bombing of a maternity hospital, and the accompanying photos, sparked international accusations of war crimes, while the Russian government simultaneously accused the event of being staged. Ukraine established a hotline for Russian mothers whose sons were sent to fight to call and see if their sons are among the casualties, which serves both humanitarian and propaganda purposes.
Throughout history, war has been perceived as the domain of men. Scholarly and historical discourse mostly focused on the violent acts perpetrated against women. As Joy Damousi writes in History and Theory, women are often marginalized in the scholarship dealing with war and violence, seen as passive victims rather than active agents.
A focus on mothers and maternity redirects our analysis to gendered aspects of a history of violence and war that do not concentrate solely on bodily violent acts of physical inflictions upon women—crucial as these remain to histories of violences—but shifts the attention to examining women and violence within another aspect: as active agents negotiating violent contexts.
According to Damousi, elevating the experiences of women in war reminds us how war and violence impact not only countries, but the wider community and families themselves. Ultimately, it’s the sense of mothers’ agency that intrigues me.
Fighters: The Mother-Soldier in South Africa
I dove into the JSTOR archives and found a journal article titled, “Moms with Guns: Women’s Political Agency in Anti-Apartheid Visual Culture.” Written by Kim Miller and published in African Arts, the imagery caught my attention. Miller explores the “spectacle of mother-activism” in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, comparing it to Argentine women’s headscarves that galvanized a movement there, Israeli mothers’ anti-war protests, and the Sri Lankan Mother’s Front. According to Miller:
In each of these cases, women managed to create public voices for themselves in circumstances where political dissent was previously restricted. Importantly, their success was heavily dependent on “spectacular public practice” of conventional motherhood (de Alwis 1997:212). Indeed the public spectacle of non-threatening, socially acceptable notions of motherhood provided these women with greater acceptance from both allies and opponents and brought them significant recognition as political actors in the public sphere.
Narrowly defining a movement around motherhood, Miller cautions, can reinforce patriarchal notions that a woman’s worth is related to her ability to birth and care for children. Her cautionary tales continue: women are vastly underrepresented in politics, so the imagery may not sway those in power.
Protestors: The Abuelas in Argentina
Miller mentions the Argentinian Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo who have been profiled before in JSTOR Daily. They organized themselves around motherhood and grandmotherhood to protest a brutal dictatorship and forced disappearances, wearing iconic white headscarves—a readily identifiable visual symbol that would become a cornerstone of Argentine politics co-opted by other causes in Argentina and beyond.
Read the Story
The Stolen Children of Argentina
Antiwar Resisters: Four Mothers in Israel
In searching for an Israeli anti-war protest group mentioned by Miller, I instead found several articles about the organization Four Mothers. The piece in International Journal of Peace Studies titled, “Mission Accomplished? Israel’s ‘Four Mothers’ and the Legacies of Successful Antiwar Movements,” written by Rachel Ben Dor and Daniel Lieberfeld, was particularly illustrative.
The Four Mothers—Leaving Lebanon in Peace is one of the most successful antiwar protest movements in Israeli history. It was founded by the parents of Israeli soldiers who had been sent to Lebanon to fight in the protracted counterinsurgency war there. Paralleling other mothers’ movements, they imbued their imagery and messaging with religion. Their name refers to four Biblical matriarchs, though they adopted both religious and secular imagery to sway public opinion. “As one of the movement’s slogans put it, ‘Our husbands were fighting this war while our boys were still babies. We don’t want our grandsons to still be fighting it.” Support for the war dwindled through their relentless activism and public education campaigns, aided by military blunders. Rather than centering on politics, their organization centered motherhood itself, which proved influential. Ultimately, Israel withdrew from Lebanon and the Four Mothers voted to dissolve itself.
Environmental Justice Activists in East Los Angeles
After exhausting the first three mothers’ movements, I found one closer to home, in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles. It is an emblematic movement for environmental justice; I vaguely recall learning about it during my undergraduate education in public health.
I read Mary Pardo’s piece, “Mexican American Women Grassroots Community Activists: ‘Mothers of East Los Angeles,'” in Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies.
In 1986, a group of Mexican-American activists formed the group Mothers of East Los Angeles. They successfully organized against the construction of a massive prison just outside the socioeconomically disadvantaged Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Their next target was a toxic waste incinerator, which had been sited to their neighborhood specifically because they had been identified as being least likely to oppose it. Their efforts for life-saving environmental justice were successful, with the incinerator being blocked by the passage of a state law. Their messaging aligned with religious interpretations and emphasized the need to protect their children, putting a nontraditional spin on traditional gender roles. “It illustrates how these Mexican American women transform ‘traditional’ networks and resources based on family and culture into political assets to defend the quality of urban life.”
Again, I found myself reflecting on women’s agency within the political system.
For today, my research impulses have been satiated. War and political violence are unequivocally harrowing, and yet within them, people find novel ways to exercise their agency. The imagery of motherhood—and maternal suffering—continues to create visceral war photos that flitter across our screens.
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