the queer theory blog

Queering Motherhood

In preparation for my PhD, I was given the recommendation of reading Revolutionizing Motherhood: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the 1994 book by Marguerite Guzman Bouvard1. This book details the history of a political movement in Argentina, between roughly 1976 and 1984, that was unlike most. What made it unusual was that the movement was created by women. In response to a horrifying trend of people being “disappeared”—in other words, secretly abducted by government operatives—mothers and grandmothers of those who were “disappeared” came together to demand accountability for the whereabouts and condition of their loved ones. As the title suggests, the movement effectively changed the parameters for what these women saw as a necessary part of their obligations as mothers.

For an excellent general review of the book, see Kate Davis (1996)2.

As a queer theorist, I read the book with an eye for what was being said about “normal” motherhood and transgressions that could be considered “queer.” To be frank, aside from the title, Bouvard dodges any obviously queer interpretations from this history. The narrative is undoubtedly feminist, highlighting the power and determination of these women, despite misgynistic pressures that would keep them in the home and out of politics. But this feminism is rooted in the second generation, painting women in the movement as capable, politically competent, and firm in their convictions; but avoiding anything that would question their femininity, motherhood, or heteronormativity. Nonetheless, there are a few moments when Bouvard’s feminism hints at an opportunity for queer inroads.

The Mothers, as they were called for short, were thrust into political discourse through their circumstances and the circumstances of their families. When their children were “disappeared,” their motherly duty extended outside of traditional at-home caretaking to a public role as advocates for the truth regarding the government’s actions against their children. This extension was largely portrayed in the narrative as a logical, obvious, and necessary extension of their motherhood. But, unsurprisingly, the patriarchal culture of Argentina didn’t see it that way. “From the beginning they were criticized for their stridency and hysteria, castigated because they defied the cultural norms of femininity” (p. 82). This language explicitly and implicitly demonstrates that the women were defiant of the culturally-imposed boundaries of womanhood. Parents of “disappeared” children or not, they were expected to keep quiet, avoid political statements, and never question their civic (in this case military) leaders. For their part, the Mothers did not seek to deny their womanhood or femininity; rather, they sought to expand the boundaries of what was appropriate, even required of them. In a sense, they were queering motherhood by making motherhood explicity political. Not by adding politics to an existing role, but by demanding that their traditional role of motherhood required them to engage in politics when the political sphere posed an existential threat to their children.

It can be said that being queer is inherently political. Does it follow, then, that being political in a revolutionary way is inherently queer?

Later in the book, Bouvard describes opposition to the Mothers’ movement even years after the fall of the junta, the government responsible for the atrocities of secret abduction and torture of young dissidents:

Various groups in the center and in the right of center began to condemn the Mothers for their supposed intrasigence. They criticized the Mothers not for their goal of promoting justice but for their political style and their tone: the women failed to support the president, and they asserted their positions too forcefully for a country that still measured women against the standard of the gentle, longsuffering housewife.

(p. 154)

Here, again, it is clear that the public took issue with the Mothers for not being good (meek) women, docile and easily controlled domestic caretakers. Even when “promoting justice” was seen as a good social act, the Mothers were not doing it “right” because, well, they were women.

So, where does this traditional feminist standpoint become queer? I argue that it may come with the political nature of their position. While there is no doubt that feminism has always been (at least in part) political, the politics of the Mothers was moreso: it was revolutionary.

It can be said that being queer is inherently political. Does it follow, then, that being political in a revolutionary way is inherently queer? When the revolution demands a view of gender and identity that is in direct opposition with patriarchal control, I think it may be possible to make this argument. I do not expect that the Mothers themselves would see their movement as queer. In fact, they may not even have seen it as particularly feminist. Bouvard, in turn, sees her history as squarely feminist, but probably not particularly queer. But as a queer theorist, I suggest that there is a mindset that comes with ignoring the politics of gender, sexual normativity, and “appropriate” family dynamics that connects this movement in Argentina to queer politics of today. It deviates from everyday feminist politics when their political fight stands independent from their feminine identity, but at the same time stands in opposition to the identity categories imposed on them.

To put my vague and tentative suggestion in a different way, the Mothers’ fight was about what is right. It was not about gender or sexuality. It is queer because they would have rather their identity not been at issue, but their political opposition demanded that it was the only issue. The parallel to modern queer identity is that to the queer practitioner, their sexual and gendered transgressions are perfectly natural and obvious. To the public, on the other hand, they are sexual and gendered—and therefore deviant. The fight becomes sexualized not because of the queer identity but because of the normative imposition of sexuality. Thus, when one’s poltics put one at odds with the demands of gendered and sexualized normativity, being political is inherently queer.

  1. Bouvard, Marguerite Guzman. 1994. Revolutionizing Motherhood: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Rowman & Littlefield. ↩︎
  2. Davis, Kate. March, 1996. Review of Bouvard, Marguerite Guzman, Revolutionizing Motherhood: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Latin American Silhouettes). H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=316 ↩︎

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1 month ago

Congratulations on your first post!

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