Whatever may be tolerated in monarchical and despotic governments, no republic is safe that tolerates a privileged class, or denies to any of its citizens equal rights and equal means to maintain them.
It was the Mothers that overthrew the government. In a break with history, a group of unarmed women seized state power, beating the generals to the punch.
The Mothers were well known. For more than forty years, they gathered on Tuesdays and Thursdays in Monument Square, the great plaza at the heart of the capital, in front of the presidential palace. Rather than speaking or chanting slogans, the Mothers held signs for their fellow citizens to see. Those signs posed simple, straightforward questions: Where are our daughters? Where are our sons? Where are the children of our children?
As governments came and went, some civilian and some military, the Mothers asked the same questions and received the same mute response. For decades, they risked death and disappearance; many were disappeared. But the Mothers, as a group, remained. New members swelled their ranks, and their witness went undiminished. To this day, the great question bystanders continue to ask is how did these women overtake the presidential palace? How did they manage this feat without getting shot, without being arrested en masse? How did they outflank the generals and take a building the military often occupied like a barracks?
We can review the facts. On the day the Mothers took over, the national currency was unstable. Interest rates were in double digits, as was inflation and unemployment. Factories were closing, small businesses were folding, and there was a shortage of milk and bread. But none of this was new; the Mothers had already seen it happen.
On the day they took over, logging companies were stripping the forests in the country’s national parks. Rigs drilled for oil in estuaries, and mines and manufacturers poured their toxins into the river systems. The air grew grey with smoke, and no flora and fauna received legal protection. But none of this was new; the Mothers had already seen it happen.
On the day they took over, abortion was banned and same sex marriage was prohibited. No woman could access birth control or receive life saving obstetrical procedures without state permission (seldom granted). The unwed were denied adoption rights, as were same sex couples. Single mothers had to register with the Interior Ministry. To be non-binary was forbidden by law; it was a felony to misreport one’s gender. Women who suffered rape, sexual assault, and incest were required to carry their pregnancies to term.
These laws were new; the Mothers understood this had not happened before.
The day they chose to make their move was Independence Day, the national holiday, the day the Mothers’ country had declared itself a republic. On that morning, the Mothers abandoned Monument Square and approached the presidential palace gates. Onlookers and bystanders assumed they would face arrest or death at the hands of the Palace Guard. The Guard was a well-trained and heavily armed outfit on high alert. The president had recently declared a national emergency as unrest spread in dozens of hamlets, towns, and cities.
But when the Mothers approached, the Guard gave way. They stepped aside and opened the gates, enabling the Mothers to cross the grand front lawn. When they reached the famous red double doors, the Mothers pushed them open, disappearing inside the seat of presidential power. Fifteen minutes later, bystanders watched as the national flag was lowered from the flagpole atop the palace. Moments later, it was raised again with the Mothers’ banner billowing beneath it.
The national media was alerted to these events and had assembled outside the palace gates. They requested access to the women inside. They received word that a woman known as “Mother 1” would speak to them. When they were shown to the presidential office, they found her seated at the executive desk. She informed those assembled that she intended to address the nation. She requested thirty minutes on all three national networks at 5 p.m. That evening, she delivered her address.
“Fellow citizens, I am one of the Mothers. Among my sistren, I am known as ‘Mother 1.’ I earned this name forty-six years ago when my son became the first boy ‘disappeared’ in this country. While I retain my Christian and family names, I elect not to share them. I have no interest in being remembered on a personal basis. What matters tonight is that my organization has deposed the government. We have deposed them in the name of our children and grandchildren, living and dead. We have deposed them in the name of your children.
“Our country is on an unsustainable path. We live in a land of amnesia. For more than forty years, no government, civilian or military, will tell us where our children are. We have rulers who say they do not know of any children taken, of any child lost. We have rulers who deny the disappearance of our loved ones, who say they never took the children of our children and sent them to live with families of the government’s choosing. For years, we have lived with this knowledge. Our government has made it clear they see no reason to offer us the truth, to pursue reconciliation. They insist that our children and grandchildren are not part of the national memory. We recognize that our government does not understand posterity; they deny the persistence of memory. They deprive us of the knowledge embedded in our bodies. They have not only mismanaged our currency, our ecology, our economy, our hospitals and universities, and our educational system. They have not only brutalized our workers with their investment strategies and radical cutbacks to our system of social welfare. They have told us that our bodies and minds lie to us, that our monuments are forgeries, that what we know will betray us.
“My fellow citizens, we have watched these abuses mount. We have, each of us, paid the cost. But recently, this government has crossed one bridge too many, committed a crime that has brought them down. This government declared that it alone decides whether and when a woman shall have children. This government, which denies the existence of our daughters and sons, has set rules regarding pregnancy and childbirth. It denies women access to contraception, family planning, prenatal care, and vital procedures needed to protect the health of women suffering troubled pregnancies. These laws have already caused many to suffer irreparable damage to their organs and bodies, emotional and physical well-being. They continue to experience trauma. Already many have died, hemorrhaging blood, leaving behind devastated families. None of this was inevitable. All of this could have been prevented.
“My fellow citizens, our rulers have broken their bond with each one of us. They have violated our sacred bodily sovereignty and the intimacy of our families. They force the wounded to bear wounded babies. They brutalize mothers, blight families, and deny those they blast any access to care. They turn citizen against citizen by incentivizing snooping, paying neighbor to spy on neighbor by reporting miscarriages to the police. My fellow citizens, they break the bonds of neighborly affection and make a woman’s body a national crime scene.
“In the coming days, our government, which we are calling the Maternal Reorganization, will present a reform package to you. This package is aimed at rebuilding our country’s frayed bonds; it is aimed at restoring the bodily health of our women and protecting the privacy of families. Upon completion, we will present these reforms in a legislative package on national television. We will print and distribute the package so every citizen can read it, critique it, and debate it. After we release the package, we will call for national elections. In these elections, we will run a presidential candidate and a legislative slate to campaign on our reform package.
“I recognize that, right now, many of you want to know how my organization, an unarmed, nonviolent group was able to take control of the government. How did we break the historical pattern of military violence that has upended our republic on so many occasions? We entered the presidential palace without a single shot fired, without a single person wounded or killed because the Palace Guard are our sons and grandsons. They are our nephews and neighbors. They are boys we taught and nurtured, men we tutored and looked after. They are our husbands and partners which is how these fine young men knew who we were. They recognize that we are their sisters and mothers, aunts and grandmothers, girlfriends, and wives. They see that our rulers have pierced the sacred bond of family that is the beating heart of our republic. They understand that our rulers betrayed the holy body of our free society.
“Let me be clear: my organization would not have attempted to seize control of the palace had our rulers not invaded our bodies. Our history shows that governments have invaded our homes and disappeared our loved ones. They have breached our walls and dynamited our dwellings. They have tortured and persecuted and jailed and murdered but never before have they inserted themselves into our wombs. And this they have done with judicial backing. It is for this reason that we void their rule. Our rulers are renegades; they have gone rogue, and we have taken the necessary step of ending their despotism. We will bring them to justice for their crimes. We will see them prosecuted according to the procedures of our code of laws and our national constitution.
“My fellow citizens, we seek peace. We seek peace in factories and firms, in churches and union halls. We want peace on our farms and in our forests. We choose peace between the generations, among neighbors and families. We avow the need for peace within our national memory. Restoring peace is our pursuit, as is healing the body politic and the bodies of our families and women. Peace is our program.
“Thank you, and goodnight.”
Mother 1 did not speak from notes and did not use a teleprompter when she delivered her address. Her speech was extemporaneous. “Everything I said tonight,” she told a reporter, “was simply my witness.”
In the days that followed, the Mothers learned that among the generals, a move was afoot to overthrow them. The Mothers recognized their time to draft reforms was short and that history could once again intrude in the form of a tank, a gun, a cell, a torture chamber. They calmly worked each day, relying on word from the Palace Guard of the plans and plotting of the military. The Mothers understood that their only protection was the Guard and the trust of their fellow citizens.
Ten days after the coup, the generals made their move. They drove tanks into Monument Square and bombed the presidential palace, killing many of the Palace Guard and taking the Mothers hostage. As the generals breached the palace, Mother 1 took to the television screen and spoke to the people one last time.
“My fellow citizens, as I speak to you, I can hear the men the generals have sent approaching this office. In a moment, they will enter this room with their weapons. Your screens will go black, and they will silence my voice. I know that you have witnessed such things before.
“The generals will enter with guns, penetrating the inner sanctum of our republic, their bayonets fixed, and pistols drawn. Right here, in this sacred room, a space as hallowed as your own hearths; in this space, they bring weapons. They know that I am unarmed. I ask you to-”
Before Mother 1 could finish, the generals breached the office and cut the power to the television camera. It is unclear now whether her fellow citizens will learn the rest of what she intended to say. It is unclear whether they will see the contents of the reform package the Mothers had almost finished drafting. It will depend on whether Mother 1’s fellow citizens believe that history is words in a book or actions taken in the streets.