Women must weep or prepare for war

Is Cindy Sheehan a contemporary Antigone? In Sophocles’ play and Greek mythology, Antigone defies King Creon’s order and buries her brother. Because she refuses to obey the laws of a usurping king, obeying instead the law of honor, she is buried alive with her brother’s corpse; defying even that indignity, she hangs herself, choosing to control her death rather than die at the hands of a wicked, order-obsessed king.

Sheehan probably will not die in Texas and no one is denying Casey Sheehan a proper burial. But she is defying the President’s desire for order, reminding him that there may be other moral compasses—a mother’s love and grief—beyond his own. Women’s defiance of leaders has often taken this form: an honorable but futile resistance. When Virginia Woolf compared the anti-fascist martyrs of the thirties to Antigone, she was offering high praise.

But in Three Guineas she was also trying to think her way out of the culture that accords only two roles to women, weeping or preparing for war. (The title of this post is the title she gave to the serialized version of Three Guineas in the Atlantic.)

I signed a petition in support of Sheehan over at MoveOn.Org and I’m interested to see that they’re helping her organize a series of candlelight vigils on Wednesday night. I won’t go, though I consider it. Does her being a mother give her the moral authority to stand up to the President? Ariana Huffington and Maureen Dowd seem to think so. Christopher Hitchens, over at Slate, thinks that’s just “sinister piffle.” With characteristic impatience, he writes:
Sheehan has obviously taken a short course in the Michael Moore/Ramsey Clark school of Iraq analysis and has not succeeded in making it one atom more elegant or persuasive. I dare say that her "moral authority" to do this is indeed absolute, if we agree for a moment on the weird idea that moral authority is required to adopt overtly political positions, but then so is my "moral" right to say that she is spouting sinister piffle.

(You can read Sheehan’s own prose—writing is not her strong suit and she’s no Hitchens—over at the Huffington Post [I knew that blog would be good for something…].) So, whether it’s unimpeachable moral authority or sinister piffle, what is it that Cindy Sheehan is doing? She is speaking in a very simple way about grief to the President and, in doing so, she has caught the nation’s attention. I think she is a contemporary Antigone. And, in a sense, this echo speaks to the inevitability of violence and the power of a great story to capture something central about human experience: the combat between individual grief and a leader's sense of order is clearly an old one. Furthermore, her moral authority may not be unimpeachable, but I do think Huffington and Dowd right to emphasize the tremendous significance of her position. Nonetheless, the very familiarity of this figure, the grieving loyal woman makes this a sad day for pacifists and feminists: here we are, in 2005, with an army of men and women, relapsing to rhetoric that Woolf found stale in the 1930s. We still have not found something to replace the gun of those who would go to war.