Cindy Sheehan: Mother of a Movement?
The authenticity of her message resonates because she is ordinary--and thus unthreatening. "As a mother myself, the first time I heard Cindy speak I was in tears," says Karen Dolan, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. "She was so poignant and touching that I was sure the average American, regardless of their political views, couldn't help but be moved by this mother who lost her son in Iraq." That said, Dolan thinks Sheehan risks losing credibility when she goes beyond that, as when she considered running against Feinstein. "In the end, she wisely decided against that," says Dolan. "I know she is well versed in many other issues, but I think the reason she connects with the public is that she is the mother of a son killed in Iraq. If she strays from that, she dilutes her message."
Indeed, part of Sheehan's power as a voice of the peace movement comes from her very lack of power as a mother. Unlike Jane Fonda, who spoke out against the Vietnam War from her privileged perch in Hollywood, Sheehan emerged as a middle-aged, middle-class Everymom who was simply raising her voice in the time-honored exception to maternal decorum: a shout to defend her kid. In fact, the rich tradition of "Don't mess with my boy!" extends across time and place from the mundane schoolyard scrap to the 1915 Women's International League to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who demonstrated for their "disappeared" sons every Thursday for years in Buenos Aires, to the contemporary Union of Soldiers' Mothers in Russia, where hordes of women are protesting their sons' conscription.
"Women as mothers can claim a kind of legitimacy that government officials never have," says Clark University Professor Cynthia Enloe, author of The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in the New Age of Empire. "Their feelings--and they are often reduced to people who are important because of their feelings--are so much more authentic than anything expressed by government officials."
But speaking from the vantage point of "motherhood" is a double-edged sword. "Maternalism can be a trap, too," Enloe says, "since we often tend to trap women in that narrow space, motherhood." As with the women of Greenham Common, who marched from Cardiff, Wales, to the military base in 1981, when they spoke first as mothers who feared for their children in a nuclear war, their objections are dismissed as naïve. "These women, as mothers, were trivialized by the government, who said, 'What could they know about radiation and fallout?' They were treated as the rank amateurs on the block," says Enloe.
"We want to make her the naïve mother, and if we hear that she is really politically conscious we start to doubt the authenticity of her maternal message," Enloe says, shedding some light on Sheehan's evolution from the darling of the press (in the early days, when she was portrayed, Rosa Parks-style, as a grief-stricken mom who simply materialized on Bush's doorstep) to a less trustworthy spokesperson of the left's antiwar message (once her connections to a more radical peace agenda were exposed).
There are other issues raised by the emergence of a soldier's mother as the icon of the peace movement. "It's good that the antiwar movement is open to military families, that it worked with them, played a supporting role to help get their own organizations going, but I think it has gone too far," says Rahul Mahajan, who serves on the steering committee of United for Peace and Justice and publishes the blog Empire Notes (www.empirenotes.org). He insists that the surge in American nationalism has led us to grant military families too much credence. "We fed into a critique of the war that was highly patriotic and jingoistic, an insistence that the war is wrong because it represents a deviation from America's past." Mahajan points out, however, that this does not come from Sheehan herself, who regularly insists that all war is "barbaric," places the Iraq War in the context of US imperialism and always mentions the numbers of Iraqi victims of the war in her speeches and interviews.