The women responsible for the holiday we know as Mother’s Day did not celebrate the day as it is celebrated in the United States. The day as they envisioned and conceived it had nothing to do with telephone calls from children, flowers, candy, or dinners out. It had nothing to do with the mothers and grandmothers with the most children and grandchildren being recognized with carnations and ribbons during church meetings. It wasn’t about Hallmark cards or Hallmark moments.
The women most responsible for Mother’s Day were radicals; feminist revolutionaries. Julia Ward Howe, who penned the Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870, was an abolitionist, sharing leadership of the movement with the likes of William Lloyd Garrison, William Cullen Bryant, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. She was a playwright, a poet and a mother of six who once wrote of her abusive marriage under a pen name when her husband forbade her to publish. She was a peace activist who worked tirelessly for an end to war and for healing the wounds of war which were suffered by civilians and soldiers alike. She was a woman who began to see and understand the parallels between the institution of slavery in the United States and the enslavement of the people of women.
Julia Ward Howe struggled as we struggle today in an oppressive marriage in which her husband threatened that if she divorced him – as she tried to do and wanted to do – he would maintain custody of their youngest two children. Chattel to her husband, as were all wives in the 1800s, Howe’s husband controlled her inheritance, using this power he had over her to withhold the money which would have allowed her freedom and independence to engage in the political work which gave her life meaning.
If we understand the reality of Howe’s life, then what she wrote in her Mother’s Day Proclamation takes on new meaning for us. When Howe writes, “Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage for caresses and applause,” she writes not only of the reality of mothers in bondage to their husbands throughout history, she writes of her own very private and personal bondage – and hell — as well.
Mother’s Day was originally Anna Reeves Jarvis’s idea. Jarvis had been a peace activist during the Civil War, devoting herself to healing the wounds and horrors of war for soldiers and their families on both sides. Jarvis called the very first “mother’s days,” “Mothers’ Work Days,” days set aside to improve sanitation during a time when more soldiers in the Civil War were dying from disease and infection than from the wounds of battle.
It was the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s, following on the heels of the devastation of the Civil War, which moved Julia Ward Howe to begin a one-woman international peace crusade inaugurated by her Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870. In 1872 she traveled to Europe hoping to promote an International Women’s Peace Conference, but established peace organizations there would not allow her to speak publicly because she was a woman. She rented her own hall and conducted her own meetings, but her attempts failed. She returned to the U.S. and promoted Mother’s Day as a day as a festival of peace; her initiative was successful and resulted in a June 2 Mother’s Day celebration in major cities which lasted 30 years. It was a day in which mothers and grandmothers united to oppose violence and war, a day in which they demanded that men lay down their weapons and work for a peaceful new world.
Mother’s Day lasted only for a short time in its conception as a day of revolution and resistance. When the elder Ann Jarvis died, her daughter began a campaign to revision Mother’s Day as a holiday honoring the individual sacrifices of mothers for their families. The younger Jarvis’s efforts found favor with Woodrow Wilson’s relentlessly anti-Women’s Suffrage administration, and in 1913, Wilson proclaimed the second Sunday in May Mother’s Day, without any reference to the reason for which it was envisioned by the elder Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe.
Today Mother’s Day in the U.S. is a billion-dollar industry dedicated to sentimentalizing and romanticizing motherhood as patriarchally envisioned, all the while the governments and religions and conservative ideologues in general wage war on mothers by way of forced motherhood, denying them access to contraceptives and abortion, criminalizing them and penalizing them for such things as breastfeeding in public, for their health problems, disabilities, and impoverishment, for their victimization by abusive partners, and for rejecting the abuses of technobirth in favor of birthing their own way, attended by midwives. Today’s Mother’s Day, instead of being a day of resistance to all forms of violence, war, and tyranny, is a day set aside for the perpetuation and repetition of platitudes, meaningless gestures, and consumerism. It is a mockery of the revolutionary vision and work of the women who conceived it.
Howe is remembered in mainstream history as the writer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, but that song was written just as Howe began her public work and before the burgeoning of her own feminist consciousness. Later she would write:
During the first two thirds of my life, I looked to the masculine idea of character as the only true one. I sought its inspiration, and referred my merits and demerits to its judicial verdict. . . . The new domain now made clear to me was that of true womanhood-woman no longer in her ancillary relation to her opposite, man, but in her direct relation to the divine plan and purpose, as a free agent, fully sharing with man every human right and every human responsibility. This discovery was like the addition of a new continent to the map of the world, or of a new testament to the old ordinances.
It was in this spirit that Howe penned her Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870. What might our communities, nation, our world, look like, were mothers and grandmothers to re-member our herstory, now dis-membered by male supremacists? What if we were to reject the mockery which has been made of Howe’s proclamation and this day, in favor of returning to revolutionary militance and dedication to the building of a new world, for our children and grandchildren, for all people? What if we seized this day, taking the opportunity it affords us to remind our children, grandchildren, friends, relatives, all who will listen of the vision of the women whose work originally inspired this day. What if we simply remembered?
Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or tears!
Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
From the bosom of the devastated earth, a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, Disarm!”
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail & commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesars but of God.
In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”