Bring Back the Real Mother’s Day

Today’s version of Mother’s Day is a festival of greeting cards and commercial kitsch. But it began as a radical campaign against militarism and brutality.

Butterfly garden-themed Mother's Day items, 2017. Delta News Hub / Wikimedia

Mother’s Day: the words conjure up shelves full of greeting cards, pink ribbons, and Norman Rockwell scenes of families serving groggy but grateful matriarchs a tray of breakfast in bed. What they don’t tend to evoke is antiwar hymns and poems and fiery denunciations of militarism. It’s a shame, because this is exactly what Mother’s Day was about for the earliest part of its history.

Many people already know the typical history of the day: after years of campaigning by Philadelphia’s Anna Jarvis, who wanted a day to celebrate the unsung sacrifices of mothers (whose domestic labor was and still is viewed as secondary to traditionally male paid work), Woodrow Wilson established the first national Mother’s Day holiday on May 9, 1914, to be celebrated on the second Sunday of May forever after. Wilson called for Americans to express “our love and reverence for the mothers of our country” in his proclamation, and to give American mothers a public “thank you.”

It took only six years for the holiday to be drowned in consumerism, and Jarvis spent much of the rest of her time on earth campaigning against its commercialization, suing those who used its name, and even trying to get it removed from the calendar. She railed against the “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers, and termites” who had corrupted her beloved day, and died mired in debt incurred from her efforts to have it revoked.

But there’s far more than this sorry history to Mother’s Day, which started life as a call to arms against war and militarism. It was Jarvis’s mother, Anna Reeves Jarvis, who coined the concept in 1858, starting various Mothers’ Day Work Clubs to organize for parental education, disease prevention, and sanitation improvements. The clubs were later called on by Union forces to help wounded and disease-ridden troops during the Civil War, and they continued to work with veterans after the war was over.

The mantle was then taken up by poet Julia Ward Howe, best known for penning the Civil War anthem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She envisioned a Mother’s Day that would be part of a worldwide peace movement. In 1870, with the memory of the Civil War not far behind and the reality of the Franco-Prussian War then raging in her thoughts, she published her “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” or “An Appeal to Women Around the World,” calling on “all women who have hearts” to proclaim their “husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause” and their “sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.”

Howe’s was an explicitly internationalist vision. She insisted that “we women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs,” and called for the establishment of a “general congress of women without limit of nationality” to “promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.” As she saw it, the occasion would be a “great and earnest day of counsel” for women to devise a way that “the great human family can live in peace.”

Howe inaugurated the first “Mother’s Day,” or “Women’s Peace Festival,” in New York on June 2, 1872, and continued to commemorate the day in subsequent years under the auspices of such groups as the Society of the Friends of Peace and the Women’s Educational Society. At its 1874 anniversary, participants sang songs and read papers, including one calling for the abolition of standing armies and war armaments and the creation of a system for universal peace arbitration. They also passed a resolution expressing sympathy for students of Maine’s Bowdoin College “in their long resistance to the imposition of a military drill.”

In subsequent years, attendees celebrated Switzerland’s abolition of the death penalty (“a relic of barbarism”), whose example they hoped the United States would soon follow, criticized the British Empire’s training of its subjects in India for war, and signed a petition “against the transfer of the Indian Bureau to the War Department” in the US. By 1876, according to a contemporaneous report in the Pittsburgh Commercial, the day was observed in multiple US and British cities, in Germany, and in Paris, Geneva, and Constantinople.

At some point, and for who knows what reason, commemoration of the day petered out. Writing in 1893, Howe noted that it had been observed “for quite a number of years” by women around the world, including “far-off Smyrna,” a Greek city that later became İzmir, a part of Turkey. Howe suggested that the Fourth of July instead become a “Mother’s, as well as a Father’s day,” recalling when she witnessed the antislavery politician Charles Sumner’s Independence Day speech on “the true grandeur of nations” that he “found entirely in the conquests of Peace as opposed to the popular worship of military renown.”

Howe wrote that to commemorate those who died in the Revolution, “we must give more attention to the good for which they died than to the mere circumstances of their death,” drawing an analogy to the Christian church, which she admonished for focusing more on “the death of its Founder” than “the truth for which he really gave his life.” She suggested that military parades be swapped for displays “more pacific in suggestion,” and proposed that “the great political offenses of the century” — “the rapacious wars of Germany, France and England, the wicked persecution of the Jews” —be “fitly shown,” along with other ideas intended to make the day “a true festival.”

Nothing remains of either Howe’s or the Jarvis’s visions in the sanitized, money-driven consumer mania that is today’s Mother’s Day. But there’s no reason it has to stay that way. As long-dormant political traditions experience revivals in our age of lopsided plenty, it’s a good time to remember the original aim of what is possibly America’s most misunderstood holiday, and to call to mind Julia Ward Howe’s words of 126 years ago: “Much is made of what the world owes to America, [but] we might suggest that our women speakers might especially bring forward the antithesis of this question … What America owes to the world.”