Mothers in War: “Responsible Mothering,” Children, and the Prevention of Violence in Twentieth-Century War

The key concern of this article is to explore how the history of twentieth-century violence forces us to reflect on how we interpret the acts of those who find themselves attempting to prevent violence, as mothers have done in relation to their children, in the context of violence and atrocity. A focus on mothers and maternity redirects our analysis to gendered aspects of a history of violence and war that do not concentrate solely on bodily violent acts or physical inflictions upon women—crucial as these remain to histories of violence—but shifts the attention to examining women and violence within another aspect: that of women as active agents negotiating violent contexts. It builds on the considerable scholarship that argues that mothers in war have invariably been represented only as victims or spectators in war, and yet they have also demonstrated agency both individually and collectively. This is significant because to ignore this dimension of scholarly endeavor misses an opportunity to write women into histories of violence in ways that complicate their role in war and make them central to the story. To marginalize mothers in the broader canvas of war and violence, as scholarship often does, is also to narrow our focus of understandings of agency and the negotiation of violence itself. I explore these wider questions by focusing on the cataclysmic events of war, in the first instance in the context of a total war in the early twentieth century, the First World War, and in the second—the Greek Civil War—a civil war that took place in mid-century. Although these are vastly different conflicts, they both illuminate the decisions of mothers to attempt to prevent further violence in war, especially in relation to their children, and to highlight the contested notion of “responsible motherhood” in war.