On the Origins of Mother’s Day

As America celebrates this holiday honoring our mothers and the merchants rake in the cash, few realize the day finds its roots in the pacifist movement of the 1870s. That’s right, before it became the sentimental Hallmark holiday it is today, Mother’s Day was something else entirely. (By the way, I’m not against taking a day to honor our mothers. I’m just engaging in a little historical spelunking.)

The first Mother’s Day in this country was the brainchild of abolitionist poet and suffragist Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910). Most will remember her as the author of the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” A social activist, Howe believed that women had a God-given duty to transform the world for the better and to be the primary advocates for peace. Written at a time when mothers all over the U.S. were still grieving the loss of sons killed in the Civil War and mothers in Europe doing the same as a result of the Franco-Prussian conflict, her “Mother’s Day Proclamation” (1870) is a militant call to action, hardly something one would put on a greeting card– or is it? Would it be wrong to take advantage of the holiday to call mothers to a more active roll in shaping the world?:

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly:
“We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will 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, the 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 out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough 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 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 Caesar,
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace 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.

Go Moms!


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  1. Before Julia Ward Howe came up with the idea, during the Civil War, a West Virginia teacher and homemaker named Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis organized “Mother’s Work Days” to improve local sanitary conditions, and, after the war, to reconcile families whose sons had fought on opposite sides. After her death in 1905, her daughter continued campaigning for her brainchild to become a national holiday.President Wilson’s decision in 1914 to declare Mother’s Day a national holiday placed more emphasis on the mother’s role in the home, rather than on her activism outside of it. Jarvis’ daughter filed a lawsuit, stating that the holiday was meant to be a day of “sentiment, not profit.”

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