Essentially Powerful: Political Motherhood in the United States and Argentina
Gibbons, Meghan Keary
Peres, Phyllis A.
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"Essentially Powerful" explores the roles of essentialism around motherhood in the political protests of two groups in the United States and Argentina. Another Mother for Peace in the U.S. and the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina based their protests on their identities as mothers, authorizing themselves to challenge their states' actions around their children. The states themselves also used the figure of the mother to promote specific behaviors that limited political opposition. The contrast between these two approaches problematizes the figure of the subject within poststructuralist and feminist debates about resistance. The subject is seen alternately as an active agent who can use essentialism strategically and a discursive construction that can be easily manipulated by ideology. This study explores the ground between these two poles, mapping the ways in which essentialisms around motherhood can be proscriptive in the hands of hegemons, but empowering when used by subjects themselves, who blend experience with essence. Interviews with participants in both groups as well as testimonial accounts, films and media coverage of the groups combine to allow a rich exploration of essentialisms by the mothers and their states. My first chapter explores how the Madres and the dictatorship used essentialism to struggle for discursive control over Argentine motherhood. The Madres' authorization of themselves as public, political subjects -in interviews, testimonies and letters-- challenged the dictatorship's formation of motherhood as a private, domestic identity. Chapter two examines the representation of the Madres' protests in film, exploring the ambivalence that Argentine audiences experienced in the women's blurring of several traditional binaries: emotion and reason, family and state, private and public. My third and fourth chapters analyze the narrative strategies of Another Mother for Peace. These North American mothers used essentialism to justify their movement into the public, political sphere, while still performing traditional, domestic motherhood in strategic ways. My final section explores how distinct cultural, religious and historical paradigms inflected the experiences of these two mothers' groups differently, facilitating and/or problematizing their uses of essentialist identities. This analysis critiques the limitations of both proscriptive and biological essentialisms, and allows us to see how the mothers' own experiences of motherhood pushed them beyond the boundaries of traditional essentialism and into new subjectivities.