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Turning Motherhood into a Political Campaign

May 12, 2019


The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is a human rights organization consisting entirely of mothers of disappeared children during the Argentine Dirty War. The initial goal of the Mothers was to inform the President of the disappearances: that’s why they chose to protest weekly in the Plaza de Mayo because it was across from the President’s house. The Argentine Dirty War was a time of mass ‘disappearances’ which resulted in the loss of a generation. The military dictatorship attempted to wipe out everyone who opposed them, ranging from babies to the old.[1] Newspapers all around the world covered the protests of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the public attention helped the Mothers stop the governmental abductions and also allowed the Mothers to get into contact with American scientists. In the aftermath of the disappearances, mothers banded together to search for their stolen children through organized protest.[2] What started as a therapeutic way for the Mothers to get answers evolved into an effective political tactic completely organized by women. The work of the Mothers continued long after the Argentine Dirty War ended. The actions of the Mothers were seen as harmless by the government, who didn’t think it was necessary to prosecute grieving mothers. However, in actuality, the Mothers were creating an uproar worldwide with their human rights movement. How did the Mothers’ fight to preserve the memory of their stolen children turn into a successful political movement against Argentina’s militaristic regime?

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo preserved the memory of the ‘lost generation’ by using public mobilization, human rights discourses, and scientific technology to challenge the junta and revolutionize what it meant to be a mother  by expanding upon the traditional and restrictive definition of motherhood, which allowed women to be involved in politics while also maintaining their role as mothers. As newspaper articles from the 1970s and 1980s suggest, the Mothers were vital in bringing an end to abductions and gruesome deaths. [3] The Mothers played an important role in getting the government to stop abducting children, however, it soon became clear that almost all of the disappeared had been executed.[4] Although this was an obvious setback for mothers who wanted to reunite with their stolen children, the Mothers soon realized that their goal was not to find their children but to spread the passion and memory of the lost children.

The efforts taken by governments after the Dirty War forced the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo to continue their protests and evolve into a human rights organization. The Mothers were successful in their protests because they took their identity as mothers and effectively used it as a political tool. As newspaper articles from the 1970s and 1980s suggest, the Mothers were vital in bringing an end to abductions and gruesome deaths.[5] The Mothers played an important role in getting the government to stop abducting children, however, it soon became clear that almost all of the disappeared had been executed.

Although the Mothers fight started with the Dirty War, it continued on even after Argentina became a democracy- the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo continued to protest, write, and appear in court. During the Dirty War, according to despairing Mothers, Argentina had become a “terrorist state that ingested its own children.”[6] Women were forced to take charge and defend the memory of those who could not be there to fend for themselves. If the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo wouldn’t march on the streets outside the President’s house demanding justice, then who would? Who else but despairing mothers would have the audacity to challenge authority?

In the beginning, the Mother’s of the Plaza de Mayo began as a movement that was intended to inform the president of the disappearances, yet it soon became evident that the president was one of the key conspirators in the abductions that took place in the 1970s and ‘80s. Not to be discouraged by the minor setback, the Mothers’ perspective soon evolved. The Mothers were no longer a group of women trying to find their missing children; instead, they became a beacon of identity. Through the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the voices of the disappeared children could still be heard.[7] This is what motivated the Mothers to walk around the Plaza de Mayo week after week to recover the memory of their ‘disappeared’ children. By abducting children, the government not only stole kids away from families, but according to grieving mothers, they also “eliminated [a] generation.”[8] However, it became the Mother’s mission to rectify the trauma of the Dirty War government and make sure that the disappeared would be remembered for their humanity and not the inhumane ways in which they were taken. In order to preserve the memory of the disappeared, the Mothers used public discourses, scientific technology, and politicized their grief.

At these protests the Mothers would carry posters of their abducted children, compelling passersby to remember those that had been forcefully silenced during the Dirty War. Through protests, the Mothers gained international publicity that allowed them to further advance their platform and evoke support from more than just Argentinians.[9] Along with protests, the Mothers also wrote poetry and biographies, detailing the horrors they faced during and after the Dirty War. One Mother of the Plaza de Mayo recounts that the government “took the best of a generation” and “didn’t even let [the family] know why they took them away either, or let [them] look on at their burial, or give [them] a place where [they] could bring a flower.” [10]

Disappearances were the “most effective systems of repression” under militaristic dictatorships in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s. The Mothers’ weekly protest became one of their most effective political tool: coverage of the protests became international.[11] The Mothers became such prominent political figures in the human rights movement that even the Pope refused to meet with the powerful Mothers, fearful of making a wrong political move.[12] It seems preposterous that a religious leader would decline the opportunity to comfort distraught mothers, however, both the Pope and the Mothers knew that the meeting would involve more than just pious consolation. Unlike traditional mothers, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo didn’t want to convene with the Pope so that he could reassure them that their children were in Heaven and that their suffering was over. Instead, the Mothers wanted to assemble an alliance with the most powerful religious leader that would bring them together against a common enemy: the Argentine government.

The Mothers changed what it meant to be a mother by using their maternal identity as a political tool. To further their political stance, only mothers of missing children were allowed to join the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.[13]  The exclusivity of the organization was intended to give the Mothers a political edge. By protesting as mothers, the Mothers believed that they would be taken seriously and receive more respect than other political dissidents.[14]  Even when faced with ridicule from the public, the Mothers knew that their fight was not over. It was not uncommon for passersby to admonish the Mothers during their protests, yelling at them that their children were dead and that nothing could be done about it now.[15]If the public couldn’t know how they died, then they needed to know why their children died, and so the Mothers marched every Thursday to remind the public of the horrors the Argentine government committed against its own children. The Mothers were such prominent political figures in Argentina that through their activism, they managed to create better adoption policies.[16]

After the Dirty War ended, the only thing the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo had left of their children were memories that the Mothers fight to keep alive. That is why the Mothers continue to walk every Thursday. The Mothers knew that their children were stolen from them “precisely because they were doing something” that the government viewed as defiance.[17] The Mothers continue to protest so that the abducted will be remembered and so that the new generation will listen to the justice the lost generation demanded. By walking around the Plaza De Mayo every Thursday, waving posters of the disappeared, the Mothers are forcing the public to remember, and in some cases learn, about the injustices that were inflicted upon those that dared to stand against the government. In a fashion unsuitable for mothers at the time, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo rallied for justice and for memory.  The government was successful in eliminating an entire generation of resistance, however, it became the new mission of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo to ensure that the fight of their children would never be forgotten. The Mothers were now a human rights organization whose mission was to make sure that Argentinians would remember the struggle imposed during the Dirty War, and make them want to fight for justice.


[1] Jo Fisher, Mothers of the Disappeared,(Boston: South End Press), 1989.

[2] Ari Gandsman, “A Prick of a Needle Can Do No Harm,” (The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology), 2009,162-184.

[3]  Susana Muñoz, Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza De Mayo, (NY: Women Make Movies Direct Cinema Ltd),1996.

[4] Jadwiga Pieper Mooney, “Militant Motherhood Revisited: Women’s Participation and Political Power in Argentina and Chile.” (History Compass 5, May 2007),975- 994.

[5] Bernal, "Equality to Die For?.

[6] Bouvard, “Revolutionizing Motherhood.”

[7]  Marjorie Agosín, The Story of Renée Epelbaum, (Trenton, N.J.: Red Sea Press), 1990.

[8] Agosín, The Story of Renée.

[9]Ari Gandsman, "“Do You Know Who You Are?” Radical Existential Doubt and Scientific Certainty in the Search for the Kidnapped Children of the Disappeared in Argentina," (The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology), 2009.

[10] Matilde Mellibovsky, Circle of Love Over Death : Testimonies of the Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo, (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press), 1997.

[11] Michael K Burns, "Argentina's 'Dirty War' is Over, but the Grief Goes on," (The Sun (1837-1990), Jun 12), 1982.

[12] Burns, "Argentina's 'Dirty War' is Over”.

[13] Bouvard. Revolutionizing Motherhood. 27.

[14]  Gandsman. “A Prick of a Needle.”

[15] Mellibovsky, Circle of Love Over Death, 15.

[16]Mellibovsky, Circle of Love Over Death, 83-91.

[17]  Mellibovsky, Circle of Love Over Death, 1.


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