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The Real Origin of Mother’s Day in America

May 8, 2011

                                 Julia Ward Howe [1819 – 1910]

Mother’s Day in America did not originate as a commercialized holiday intended as a sentimental celebration of mothers and motherhood; it started as an anti-war movement.  In 1870, after the massive number of deaths from the civil war, a woman named Julia Ward Howe issued a proclamation from Boston, Massachusetts and set forth as an anti-war activist in the USA and UK.  She spent the years following calling women to gather and bring an end to war. The original idea of Mother’s Day was for mothers to leave their usual duties in life -ditch the cooking and cleaning, forget the laundry, chores or jobs- and spend a day working toward peace and the end of war as a collective, a call issued to all of the mothers of the world:

“Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts,
whether our baptism be that of water or of fears!

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 been able to teach
them of charity, mercy and patience.

We women of one country will be too tender of those of another
country 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 our 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 and commemorate the dead.

Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the
means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each
bearing after their own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
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

Through the 1890s, the promotion of Mother’s Day as a peace movement and a call for disarmament continued but did not catch on nationally.  Julia Ward Howe went on to write other works and campaign for peace, the suffrage movement, the abolition of slavery and democracy. 

                                  Anna Marie Jarvis [1864 – 1948]

So how did the holiday get subverted?  How has Mother’s Day become about greeting cards, flowers, boxed jewelry and other gifts?  How did a political movement morph into Victorian nostalgia? The Wikipedia does such a good job of summing it up:

” The current holiday was created by Anna Jarvis in Grafton, West Virginia, in 1908 as a day to honor one’s mother. Jarvis wanted to accomplish her mother’s dream of making a celebration for all mothers, although the idea didn’t take off until she enlisted the services of wealthy Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker. She kept promoting the holiday until President Woodrow Wilson made it an official national holiday in 1914. The holiday eventually became so highly commercialized that many, including its founder, Anna Jarvis, considered it a “Hallmark Holiday”, i.e. one with an overwhelming commercial purpose. Jarvis eventually ended up opposing the holiday she had helped to create…

Nine years after the first official United States Mother’s Day, commercialization of the holiday became so rampant that Anna Jarvis herself became a major opponent of what the holiday had become and spent all her inheritance and the rest of her life fighting what she saw as an abuse of the celebration.

Later commercial and other exploitations of the use of Mother’s Day infuriated Jarvis and she made her criticisms explicitly known the rest of her life.

She criticized the practice of purchasing greeting cards, which she saw as a sign of being too lazy to write a personal letter. She was arrested in 1948 for disturbing the peace while protesting against the commercialization of Mother’s Day, and she finally said that she “wished she would have never started the day because it became so out of control …”

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