Truth and Meaning: Mother’s Day

Truth and Meaning: Mother’s Day

After Unitarian Julia Ward Howe wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic, the American Civil War raged on for four more bloody years. Five years later the Franco-Prussian War broke out in Europe and Howe acted. She began a one-woman global peace crusade, starting with an appeal to womanhood to rise against war. She went to London to promote an international Woman’s Peace Congress. That effort failed, so she returned to Boston and initiated a Mothers’ Peace Day observance on the second Sunday in June. That meeting was observed for a number of years.

There were other movements afoot to create a day honoring mothers. Ann Jarvis was a young Appalachian homemaker who tried to improve sanitation through what she called Mothers’ Work Days before the Civil War. When Jarvis died in 1907, her daughter Anna worked to found a memorial day for women. The first such Mother’s Day was celebrated in Grafton, West Virginia, on May 10, 1908, at St. Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church, where Anna’s mother had taught Sunday School. From there, the custom caught on and eventually spread to 45 states.

In 1913, Congress declared the second Sunday in May to be Mother’s Day. The following year, President Woodrow Wilson made Mother’s Day a national holiday. This is long before radio and television, and advertising was still a new industry. But, the growing American consumer culture had successfully redefined women as buyers for their families. Politicians and businesses eagerly embraced the idea of celebrating the private sacrifices made by individual mothers. As the Florists’ Review, the industry’s trade journal, bluntly put it, “This was a holiday that could be exploited.” The new advertising industry quickly taught Americans the best way to honor their mothers — by buying flowers.

Since then, Mother’s Day has ballooned into a billion-dollar event. For those who appreciate irony, Anna Jarvis became increasingly concerned over the commercialization of Mother’s Day, saying, “I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit.” She opposed the use of greeting cards, calling them “a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write.” In 1923, Jarvis filed suit against New York Gov. Al Smith, over a Mother’s Day celebration. When the suit was dismissed, she began a public protest and was arrested for … disturbing the peace.

This Mother’s Day, let us disturb the peace for our mothers, our daughters and sisters, our wives and partners. Let us disturb the peace for an end to war, an end to attacks on health care, an end to efforts to undercut public education, and especially an end to a culture that endures and supports domestic violence and rape.