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The Original Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day for Peace – by Ruth Rosen.

Honor Mother with Rallies in the Streets.The holiday
began in activism; it needs rescuing from commercialism
and platitudes.

Every year, people snipe at the shallow commercialism of Mother’s Day. But to
ignore your mother on this holy holiday is unthinkable. And if you are a
mother, you’ll be devastated if your ingrates fail to honor you at least one
day of the year.

Mother’s Day wasn’t always like this. The women who conceived Mother’s Day
would be bewildered by the ubiquitous ads that hound us to find that “perfect
gift for Mom.”  They would expect women to be marching in the streets, not
eating with their families in restaurants.  This is because Mother’s Day began
as a holiday that commemorated women’s public activism, not as a celebration
of a mother’s devotion to her family.

The story begins in 1858 when a community activist named Anna Reeves Jarvis
organized Mothers’ Works Days in West Virginia.  Her immediate goal was to
improve sanitation in Appalachian communities.  During the Civil War, Jarvis
pried women from their families to care for  the wounded on both sides.
Afterward she convened meetings to persuale men to lay aside their
hostilities.

In 1872, Juulia Ward Howe, author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”,
proposed an annual Mother’s Day for Peace.  Committed to abolishing war, Howe
wrote: “Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage… 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”.

For the next 30 years, Americans celebrated Mothers’ Day for Peace on June 2.

Many middle-class women in the 19th century believed that they bore a special
responsibility as actual or potential mothers to care for the casualties of
society and to turn America into a more civilized nation.  They played a
leading role  in the abolitionist movement to end slavery.  In the following
decades, they launched successful campaigns against lynching and consumer
fraud and battled for improved working conditions for women and protection for
children, public health services and social welfare assistance to the poor.
To the activists, the connection between motherhood and the fight for social
and economic justice seemed self-evident.

In 1913, Congress declared the second Sunday in May to be Mother’s Day.  By
then, the growing consumer culture had successfully redefined women as
consumers for their families.  Politicians and businessmen eagerly enbraced
the idea of celebrating the private sacrifices made by individual mothers.  As
the Florists’ Review, the industry’s trade jounal, bluntly put it, “This was a
holiday that could be exploited.”

The new advertising industry quickly taught Americans how to honor their
mothers – by buying flowers.  Outraged by florists who were seling carnations
for the exorbitant price of $1 apeice, Anna Jarvis’ duaghter undertook a
campaging against those who “would undermine Mother’s Day with their greed.”
But she fought a losing battle.  Within a few years, the Florists’ Review
triumphantly announced that it was “Miss Jarvis who was completely squelched.”

Since then, Mother’s Day has ballooned into a billion-dollar industry.

Americans may revere the idea of motherhood and love their own mothers, but
not all mothers.  Poor, unemployed rmothers may enjoy flowers, but they also
need child care, job training, health care, a higher minimum wage and paid
parental leave.  Working mothers may enjoy breakfast in bed, but they also
need the kind of governmental assistance provided by every other
industrialized society.

With a little imagination, we could restore Mother’s Day as a holiday that
celebrates women’s political engagement in society.  During the 1980’s, some
peace groups gathered at nuclear test sites on Mother’s Day to protest the
arms race.  Today, our greatest threat is not from missilies but from our
indifference toward human welfare and the health of our planet.  Imagine, if
you can, an annual Million Mother March in the nation’s capital.  Imagine a
Mother’s Day filled with voices demanding social and economic justice and a
sustainable future, rather than speeches studded with syrupy platitudes.

Some will think it insulting to alter our current way of celebrating Mother’s
Day.  But public activism does not preclude private expressions of love and
gratitude. (Nor does it prevent people from expressing their appreciation all
year round.)

Nineteenth century women dared to dream of a day that honored women’s civil
activism.  We can do no less. We should honor their vision with civic
activism.

Ruth Rosen is a professor of history at UC Davis.
Reprinted with permission

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