When Mothers’ Day Was a Call to Action

Margo Wagner, 16, from Northern Virginia and babysitter to family in the picture.

On May 14, tens of millions of North American women will celebrate Mothers’ Day in ways that would be unrecognizable to the original holiday’s founders. Far from being spent in the bosom of one’s family, Mothers’ Day was originally conceived as a day when women would put aside their own domestic and family concerns and join together in social or political action.

The idea arose after the American Civil War, during which women had toiled in battle as soldiers and nurses, as well as taken over for the absent men on the home front. For the first time released from purely domestic lives, American women were discovering what they could contribute amidst horrible suffering and what they could do as mother, i.e. provide love and tender care while being tough enough to withstand the horrors. When the killing was over, the mothering continued with the poor and sick, providing crucial social service.

Poet and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe had seen the effects of this powerful mothering first-hand when invited by Abraham Lincoln to the soldiers’ camps. A mother, herself, as well as a wife, homemaker, writer and activist, Mrs. Howe was a prominent figure whose star shone even brighter when she authored new words for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Changed by the experience of war, she devoted the rest of her life to working for peace.

The suffragist Howe had confidence in women to mold the future and traveled across the U.S. and abroad organizing activist groups. Energized by her cause, she created an enduring magazine, raised her children and wrote prolifically. When France and Germany went to war with each other in 1870 and she saw the hounds of war released again, Julia Ward Howe published “An Appeal to Womanhood throughout the World,” pushing for a global women’s congress for peace.

This appeal would become known as The Mothers Day Manifesto in 1872 when Ward Howe proposed a “Mothers’ Day for Peace.” Far from sentimentalizing mothers, she urged instead that they use that forceful power to mother humanity. Never intended to exclude women who had not given birth, The Mothers’ Day Manifesto was a call to action and not to brunch. Despite her eminence, the Establishment refused Julia Ward Howe as too radical for the status quo and Mothers’ Day became dormant until revived by another Civil War activist, Ann Jarvis. Jarvis formed groups of mothers to nurse the wounded on both sides of the Civil War, successfully convincing them to rise above the politics in order to save lives. After her death in 1905, Ann’s daughter Anna determined to manifest a heartfelt desire of her mother’s—that the nation would create a Mothers’ Day to honor woman’s work.

By the early days of the 20th century, the timing seemed propitious. The U.S. entered the Progressive Era and women of the day were a strong influence and active moral force who saw the duties of government as being a form of extended housekeeping. While pushing for their own right to vote, homemakers engaged in civil rights and welfare issues as essentially maternal concerns.  

Anna started her campaign for a Mothers’ Day and, by 1908, had pushed all the way to the Congress who refused her, remarking with laughter, that the next thing would be a mothers-in-law day. Nevertheless, she persisted and, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed Mothers Day into law as a national holiday in which all public buildings were to fly the country’s flag in recognition of “the greatest source of the country’s strength and inspiration.”

Mrs. Howe was dead, the Establishment had never been keen on encouraging women’s activism and the holiday was turned away from activism and refocused on women’s roles in the home and family. Anna Jarvis watched angrily as the apostrophe was moved from Mothers’ to Mother’s so that a day for organized social and political action by all mothers became instead a private celebration of each mother. She fought until her death to celebrate Mothering as a powerful force for common good.

How did we devolve from the lofty aspiration of a day for women joining forces to save the world to saying it with flowers? Imagine what might have happened in the last 103 years if women had gathered together? Certainly, Hallmark Cards was influential as their images of women in domestic bliss took over with impeccable grooming, children and housekeeping the nadir of happiness.

Sigmund Freud didn’t help either as he insisted that men had to abandon ties to their mothers for fear of not being able to become masculine, thereby diminishing women’s influence. Hollywood added to the pile-on, creating mothers of such perfection that no human woman could ever match up. Movie studios created by men who had lost their own mothers to violence and war, re-imagined a sentimental figure that lived only for her family; the idea of gathering woman-power together for a day devoted to social activism was buried under mounds of chocolates.

Julia Ward Howe and the Jarvis women’s heroic ideals for women at least on one day a year was co-opted into a celebration of domestic service, diminishing the role of women in public life. Mother Earth, Mother Nature, Mother Courage and mothers in general became disrespected and defiled, even becoming the last group who are the acceptable butt of jokes.

The United States has just dropped the Mother of all Bombs, megatons of destruction. We all have mothers, many of us are mothers; we know how powerful a life-giving force it is. It is time to restore the status of mothering as a force in saving the world.

What a Happy Mothers’ Day that would be!


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