Essentially Powerful: Political Motherhood in the United States and Argentina

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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.