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cindy sheehan and the social vs. the political May 10, 2007

Posted by sindhub in 911, bill o'reilly, cindy sheehan, controversy, female politicos, Female Power, G W. Bush, gender, in the news, iraq war, jersey girls, jersey widows, morality, motherhood, nationalism, news stories, politics, Power, rush limbaugh, the state, wartime politics, women and war.

I wanted to talk a little bit more about something I brought up in class today, about how women’s traditional gender roles in the U.S. involve upholding social and cultural mores, and possibly aiming to ‘better society,’ but never being explicitly political about it.  I realized after class what I meant by ‘explicitly political’: placing the blame on someone.  Politics is very much about finger-wagging, appeasing constituents, and placing the blame for something on somebody or something.  Traditionally, it’s been more socially approved for women to try to ease society’s ills, e.g. the temperance movements of the late nineteenth century.  Although women took on leadership roles in these organizations and argued in favor of women’s right to vote, their main focus was on maintaining the ‘traditional’ family structure (the Women’s Christian Temperance Union is strongly against same-sex marriage), not shaking up society.  However, and I think this has something to do with us living in the post-9/11 era, when a woman blames someone explicitly for breaking up the family (and not just alcohol), there can be a severe backlash.  Even flippantly critical comments like Natalie Maines’ can do that, but I think the best example in the current Bush presidency is Cindy Sheehan.

I’m sure you’ve heard of her; she’s the mother whose son died in the Iraq war, and became an anti-war protester, going so far as to camp outside President Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch for five weeks, insisting on speaking with him personally (which he never agreed to, though he did send top officials).  I remember when this happened in the summer of 2005, and it just being all over the news.  Surely a mother’s grief for her lost son is newsworthy.  But Sheehan’s story only took the vitriolic, polarizing turn that it did, dominating the nightly news for the summer, because she took her traditionally social role as a mother and used it politically.  Antiwar groups rallied against her because she was so beneficial to their cause, and Bush’s supporters criticized her for being ‘treasonous.’  Her critics didn’t question what she was saying–that the Iraq war wouldn’t make us any safer, and that she herself would fight to protect the country–rather, they questioned her.

Numerous media personalities questioned Sheehan’s autonomy.  Bill O’Reilly said on The O’Reilly Factor:

“I think she has been hijacked by some very, very far left elements . . . there is no question that she has thrown in with the most radical elements in this country. . . . I think Mrs. Sheehan bears some responsibility for this and also for the responsibility of other American families who have lost sons and daughters in Iraq, who feel that this kind of behavior borders on treasonous.”

How is Sheehan responsible for the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq?  I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one… but either way, the implication that Sheehan wasn’t speaking for herself, that she was a weapon fabricated by the antiwar movement, was there.  Of course a woman can’t form political opinions on her own!  Even when she was so personally affected by the political decisions of those men holding power on Capitol Hill.  It seems to me that maybe certain segments of the American population couldn’t, or refused to, recognize a woman being political and placing the blame on someone.

It’s also really striking to see how quickly people turned against Sheehan when she became so critical of Bush.  Rush Limbaugh is quoted as saying:

“I first said on August 12th and in ensuing days, acknowledged she lost her son, talked about it, was even sympathetic and then went on to make the point that all she is, is an opportunity, like Bill Burkett was an opportunity to bash Bush, like the Jersey Girls are an opportunity to bash Bush, like Valerie Plame is an opportunity to bash Bush and bash Rove. Like the Jersey Girls were, she’s just the next in line…”

Limbaugh pretty obviously, without realizing it perhaps, shows through his statement that he can be sympathetic to a grieving mother, but not when that mother actually takes action and speaks out against what happened; he reacted against the power and attention she demanded toward her cause.

The case Limbaugh brings up–the Jersey girls, a.k.a. the Jersey Widows–are four women whose husbands died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and who helped establish the 9/11 Commission and the 9/11 Family Steering Committee.  Political controversy revolving around them involves conservatives attacking them, seemingly for being too political, and interestingly enough, because they wanted the 9/11 Commission Report to politicize blame–not necessarily blame President Bush, but the people reporting information to him.  And then they did criticize Bush for not acting on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Report, drawing criticism themselves, showing again that it’s all well and okay for women to grieve, until they place the blame for that grief on someone, which male politicians routinely do but don’t get their credibility as people questioned for.

Something that I’m wondering is how this fits women into the nationalist framework.  It seems pretty clear to me that the idea of the nation depends on women to grieve, to play the motherly role, to be something to protect, as we talked about in class.  So when women, as wives or as mothers, take on that role and turn it against the state, it can be potentially very controversial.


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