Saturday, September 10, 2005

Mother Courage


In the grainy TV image above, a pregnant Julie Stout, protesting the war in Iraq, sits on the lawn in front of Massie Hall with a protest sign in her lap. She is handing her daughter Zelda a bottle of bubble liquid. It was September 10, 2004, exactly a year ago, the day that President George W. Bush slipped into Portsmouth for a rally at the James Rhodes Athletic Center on the campus of Shawnee State U. After nearly four years of Bush in office, Americans were deeply divided about his job performance, particularly about his foreign policy. The reason he slipped in and out of Portsmouth was to avoid the demonstrators he was all too familiar with from his campaign trips to other cities. In 2000 he had run on a promise to be a uniter, not a divider. Primarily because of the invasion of Iraq, by 2004 it was clear he had not kept that campaign promise.

The Rhodes Center at SSU is named after the late Governor James Rhodes, who was a controversial figure because of his role leading up to the killing of four Kent State students and the wounding of nine others by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970. The day before the May 4th shootings, Gov. Rhodes had given a provocative speech in which he said of the demonstrators, “They're the worst type of people that we harbor in America. I think that we're up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America.” He warned that every means at the disposal of the authorities would be used against them. It was reported that some of the National Guard troops later said they had fired because they were fearful of their lives. Two of the students killed were not demonstrators; one of them was a young woman on her way to class. Unfairly or not, many held Rhodes responsible for the tragedy that occurred. Unfairly or not, increasing numbers of Americans by September 2004 held George W. Bush responsible for the deaths of over 1000 American soldiers in Iraq and the maiming of many thousands more, not to speak of the death and maiming of tens of thousands of Iraqis.

Not just the Rhodes Center but the entire Shawnee State campus was in control of city and federal authorities the day of Bush’s visit. The university officials cooperated completely with the Bush team to insure that protestors would not be allowed on campus: they were confined to a small traffic island at the entrance of the campus. The traffic island was surrounded by police cruisers with flashing lights and yellow police tape. The Bush entourage was spared the discomfort of even having to see the protestors on the traffic island: the buses drove around the traffic islanders and entered the campus by a back route. To further insure that the Bush entourage and the carefully screened audience would not have to see demonstrators, and that demonstrators could not see them, much of the campus was declared a no-protest zone.

Four-year-old Zelda on Sept. 10, 2004

One of the very few demonstrators who entered the no-protest zone was Julie Stout, who sat on the lawn in front of Massie Hall with her four-year-old daughter Zelda. It was a lovely day and Zelda played nearby, blowing soap bubbles while her mother sat with the poster in her lap.

On my way into Massie Hall, I stopped to talk with Julie as some gray-haired people who had been at the rally began strolling down the walkway that had been dubbed “Success Way” by a failed administrator at Shawnee. As they passed Julie and her sign, the Bush folk could not believe their eyes. They saw a child blowing soap bubbles and her pregnant mother sitting on the grass with her legs crossed holding that sign in her lap.


I moved back to film the reactions of passersby wearing Bush buttons. They shook their heads and mumbled disapproval. The presence of Zelda bothered passing women and bothered in particular a woman I knew, whom I will call Hildegard. In her agitated state Hildegard did not notice me. I knew her as an intelligent and caring professional woman, so I was surprised, surprised not that she would have been at the Bush rally but that she would stop and accuse Julie, whom she had never seen before, of being an unfit mother on the basis of the sign Julie was holding. She berated Julie for setting a poor example for her daughter. A poor example of what?

Women like Hildegard considered Julie’s opinion of Pres. Bush treasonous, but instead of challenging Julie’s politics they accused her of being an unfit mother. If Julie’s husband, who was protesting elsewhere, had been sitting there with that sign in his lap and his daughter playing nearby, I doubt anyone would have accused him of being an unfit father. They might have called him names, but not an unfit father. Apparently, you can say nothing worse about a woman than that she is an unfit mother. Apparently, being “unfit” is even worse than being a “slut.” “Unfit” is the ultimate insult: it transcends politics, race, and religion. Being an unfit mother is the unpardonable sin; it is a crime against nature.

I have since learned that Julie is not an unfit mother. On the contrary, I think she is an exceptionally responsible mother, because she feels improving the kind of a world and country and city that her children will grow up in is one of her important duties as a mother. What infuriates some other women is not that she is an unfit mother but that she is an outspoken woman. Some women might tolerate and even begrudgingly admire an outspoken man, but not an outspoken woman, especially not one expressing political views they consider un-American. How dare a woman act so independently. How dare a woman suggest the president and vice president are war criminals.

Further complicating all this is that too many of these women who can’t stand women like Julie are often married to husbands who, in spite of their bluster, brush-clearing, and testosterone posturing, tend to be losers who go into politics and suck up to and leech themselves on to those who have money and power. That is as true at the national as it is at the local level. Mike Brown, the head of FEMA, who was just "reassigned" yesterday following his recent display of criminal incompetence, is a good example of the frat brother loser who becomes a political lackey. But there are even better examples higher up the chain of incompetence.

In one of his plays, Bertolt Brecht created a character named Mother Courage. Director Michael Kahn said, “Mother Courage has an ironic sense of humor that allows her to survive the most difficult situations. She is also a tenacious fighter, unwilling to be averted from her goal of providing for herself and her children.” Almost a year before Cindy Sheehan took up her heroic vigil at Crawford, Texas, Julie Stout was sitting in the no-protest zone of the campus, accompanied only by her daughter, with a sign accusing Bush and Cheney of being war criminals. That took courage. Especially a year ago. Now that a majority of Americans have turned against Bush and the war, Julie’s sign, in September 2005, appears a little less heretical than it did on September 10, 2004.

Julie has since given birth to a son, Henry, which is all the more reason as a mother she is not going to let those who call her unfit stop her from fighting for a better future for her children. She and her husband Drew and her two children form a tight-knit family that this community can take pride in, in contrast to the adulterous lifestyle of some local politicians. She was born and raised in Ohio. She is a Buckeye mother with the courage of her convictions. In national elections, Ohio is considered a swing state, which can go in either direction. She shows in which direction Ohio and the country may be headed.

A happy Zelda and a contented Henry at home