Wearing matching shades of white or yellow, the women of the “Wall of Moms” in Portland, Ore., have become instant icons of the city’s protests, though the mothers nightly gatherings only began last Saturday and the city’s protests have been going on for more than a month.
They join a long line of mothers’ protests against state violence and what they view as authoritarianism around the world, including in South Africa, Sri Lanka, Argentina and Armenia, which have shown that mothers can be particularly effective advocates for a cause — but also that there is a catch.
History suggests that mothers’ power is most potent when they are able to wield their own respectability, and the protections it brings, as a political cudgel. But that is easiest for women who are already privileged: married, affluent, and members of the dominant racial or ethnic group.
Mothers who are less privileged often struggle to claim that power, even though they are often the ones who most urgently need it.
“I wanted us to look like moms,” Ms. Barnum said in an interview. “Because who wants to shoot a mom? No one.”
Ms. Barnum said she identified as Mexican-American, not white, but other members say the group is mostly white.
Mothers’ protests are often powerful precisely because the gender roles that ordinarily silence and sideline women, allowing them to be seen as nonthreatening, turn into armor for political activism, experts say.
During Armenia’s 2018 “velvet revolution,” a largely nonviolent uprising that eventually toppled the country’s leader, Serzh Sargsyan, mothers took to the streets pushing their children in strollers, indelibly tying their maternal identities to their political demands.
Credit…Vano Shlamov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
In Armenia, “mothers are symbolic to the nation and, to some extent, have immunity in protests,” Ulrike Ziemer, a sociologist at the University of Winchester in Britain, wrote in a 2019 book chapter about the uprising. “If police would have touched mothers with their children in prams during the protests, that would have brought shame on them individually, but also on the state apparatus they represent.”
In the Armenian protests, mothers from all walks of life were able to claim those protections, Dr. Ziemer said in an interview. But in societies that are divided along racial or ethnic lines, mothers from marginalized groups cannot access that full political power so easily
In South Africa, the Black Sash, a group of white women who opposed the apartheid regime, were able to use their gender and race as a shield for their political activity that others could not.
“The Government has let Black Sash survive while closing down other anti-apartheid groups in part because white South African society has perched its women on pedestals,” The Times reportedin 1988. “The police find it awkward to pack the paddy wagons with well-bred troublemakers who look like their mothers or sisters.”
The government had no such compunction about locking up Black women. Albertina Sisulu, a pioneering Black anti-apartheid activist who was also a married mother of five, was arrested and held in solitary confinement multiple times. Countless other Black women suffered even worse fates.
In Sri Lanka, women from the Tamil minority group have been protesting for years to demand information about sons and daughters who were kidnapped by state forces during the country’s civil war and never heard from again. Their activism has drawn international attention and some limited engagement from the country’s government.
But when the women’s demands went beyond their own individual grief and engaged with politics more broadly, national politicians and civil society groups dismissed them as pawns of male activists, said Dharsha Jegatheeswaran, co-director of the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research, a Sri Lanka-based think tank. As members of a marginalized minority group, she said, motherhood could take them only so far.
In the United States, there is a long tradition of Black women claiming their identities as mothers when protesting against police shootings, lynchings, and mass incarceration. But, like the Tamil activists in Sri Lanka, they have tended to be viewed through the narrow lens of their own grief and fear for their children. White women have typically been taken far more seriously by white audiences as representing mothers generally — another case of bias on display.
Ann Gregory, a lawyer and mother of two who joined the wall of moms in Portland on Sunday, said they had hoped to serve as a buffer between other demonstrators and law enforcement.
“We realize that we’re a bunch of white women, and we do have privilege,” she said. “We were hoping to use that to protect the protesters.”
“We don’t need silent victims, we need loud witnesses.”
Instead, the women got a crash course in the grievances that had set off the protests in the first place.
Ms. Barnum, new to such activism, said she was surprised when other demonstrators warned her group that they could be in danger.
“The news said that if you give the police officer a reason to fear for their life, a reasonable fear, they could hurt you,” she said. “But if you didn’t give them a reason then they wouldn’t hurt you.”
The moms, she reasoned, would be peaceful and give the officers no cause for alarm, so had no reason to worry.