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
Teressa Raiford, a Black mother who is the executive director of Don’t Shoot Portland, a local group that works to end police violence, helped to organize and direct the Wall of Moms’ early actions, but noted that the positive response to the mostly white mothers has been proof of the very racism they are protesting.
Mothers had been participating in the protests for five weeks, but “nobody recognized them until they literally put on white so they could be highlighted as white,” she said.
“What it does show us is that Black lives don’t matter here, white moms do,” she said. “And those moms know that, too. That’s why they’re standing in solidarity with us.”
‘Mothers are symbolic to the nation’
Bev Barnum — who posted the original Facebook message asking moms to come and protest, and serves as the group’s informal leader and organizer — said she had asked women to color-coordinate their outfits in order to stand out in the crowd, but otherwise told them to dress “like they were going to Target.”
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.
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.
“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 reported in 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.