Front Line Mothers
Updated: Aug 4
Arms linked and in their signature yellow outfits, groups of women formed a human barrier, eerily crooning “hands up don’t shoot me.” Armed with motherly concern and anger, a mother-led branch of activism is spreading across the country. The “Wall of Moms” emerged out of Portland last week after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents began mass arrests of protesters in the city.
The concept of mothers taking a stand during protests is a long-standing tradition. If you google mothers against __ you will find numerous issues mothers are against (drunk driving, gun violence, weed, video games). You name it, a mother somewhere is against it. Yet the true impact of these against-it mothers emerges when the activism morphs from words into actions.
There is a long history of mothers involved in protests around the world, including in Cuba, Sri Lanka, Argentina, Mexico, and the United States. Historically the involvement of mothers marks a significant turning point in a movement. Notably, a commonality between these protests stems from the ‘disappearance’ of children. Often, when the protest is linked to the loss of a child, the mother’s outrage with the political systems that harm children is often misconstrued in the media. However, the protective instinct of a mother yields influence and should not be underestimated.
In Cuba, women deemed Las Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) marched after mass each Sunday in protest against the arrest and detainment of 75 activists, journalists, and librarians for alleged collaboration with US diplomats. In 2011 the last of the 75 prisoners were released, yet the group’s activism continues today despite consistent violence and harassment by government police (1).
In Sri Lanka, the ethnic minority called the Tamils make up roughly 11% of the population. For decades the Tamils have been persecuted and millions make up a diaspora worldwide. Between 2005-2015 during which the country was in a civil war thousands of people are believed to have been forcibly taken into state custody (2). Out of anger and grief, the group Mother of the Disappeared was formed protesting for information about their sons and daughters. When the aims of the protests shifted beyond individual grief and became a political movement, the government dismissed the women as pawns of male activists.
In Argentina, mothers gathered in the streets in protest against the government and in search of their children. During the “dirty war” which raged from 1976 to 1983 the Argentina government abducted, tortured, and killed anyone who was deemed a political opponent to the regime (3). Most were young people, whose records would be destroyed to eliminate any possibility of recovering their whereabouts. The mothers of these young people took to the streets wearing white headscarves and marched through the streets of Buenos Aires advocating against censorship and for information about their children.
In Mexico, Mother’s Day is celebrated with annual protests. Women walk through the streets of Mexico city, with portraits of their sons and husbands emblazoned on their shirts demanding information. After the war on drugs was launched in 2006, thousands of people have gone missing, most of them not related to the drug trade (4). Some mothers have gone as far as taking the job of the authorities into their own hands, digging through mass graves in search of their children.
Often these protests are defined through a narrow lens of individual grief and fear for children or a spouse. As well as through a sexist, racist bias that plagues the true effectiveness of these protests. Mothers hold potent power within society, a sense of respectability and authority, yet at the same time, traditional gender roles ordain that mothers should be silent and sidelined when it comes to politics. The authority that mothers do hold can be powerful if utilized correctly, but for some, it’s easier to grasp then others.
Mothers, in particular White mothers, are seen and regarded in high esteem which provides unique privilege and media attention. The idealism of White mothers allows them to enter a conflict often unscathed, acting as the barrier between the police and the activists whose lives are most directly affected by racist governments. Most notably this was seen in South Africa when affluent White women took a public anti-government stance. These women were protected by their whiteness -- none faced jail times. The New York Times reported in 1988, that White South African society has “perched its women on pedestals” (5), and they were thereby protected.
Women have and will always act as a driving force in activism. The focus on the Wall of Moms in Portland is well deserved, but the media should also acknowledge the many mothers of color who have been on the frontline of activism for many, many years. To accurately report this moment, the narrative should include all who have been voices for their cause.