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At first glance, Mother’s Day appears a quaint and
conservative holiday, a sort of greeting card moment, honoring 1950s values, a
historical throw back to old-fashioned notions of hearth and home.
Let’s correct that impression by saying: Happy Radical Mother’s Day.
In May 1907, Anna Jarvis, a member of a Methodist
congregation in Grafton, West Virginia, passed out 500 white carnations in
church to commemorate the life of her mother. A year later, the same Methodist church created a
special service to honor mothers. Many progressive and liberal Christian organizations–like the YMCA and
the World Sunday School Association–picked up the cause and lobbied Congress to
make Mother’s Day a national holiday. And, in 1914, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson made it official and
signed Mother’s Day into law. Thus
began the modern celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States.
For some years, radical Protestant women had been agitating
for a national Mother’s Day hoping that it would further a progressive
political agenda that favored issues related to women’s lives. In the late 19th century,
Julia Ward Howe (better know for the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”) expressed
this hope in her 1870 prose-poem, “A Mother’s Day Proclamation” calling women
to pacifism and political resistance:
then…women of this day! ?Arise,
all women who have hearts! ?
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears! ?
sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” ?
does not wipe our dishonor, ?
violence indicate possession. ?
men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil ?
the summons of war, ?
women now leave all that may be left of home ?
a great and earnest day of counsel. ?
them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. ?
them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
the great human family can live in peace… ?
bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, ?But of God –
Years later, Anna Jarvis intended the new holiday to honor
all mothers beginning with her own–Anna Reeves Jarvis, who had died in
1905. Although now largely
forgotten, Anna Reeves Jarvis was a social activist and community organizer who
shared the political views of other progressive women like Julia Ward
Howe. In 1858, Anna Reeves Jarvis
organized poor women in West Virginia into “Mothers’ Work Day Clubs” to raise
the issue of clean water and sanitation in relation to the lives of women and
children. She also worked for
universal access to medicine for the poor. Reeves Jarvis was also a pacifist who served both sides in
the Civil War by working for camp sanitation and medical care for soldiers of
the North and the South.
Although I’ve never seen it on a pastel flowered greeting
card, Mother’s Day honors a progressive feminist, inclusive, non-violent vision
for world community–born in the imagination of women who devoted themselves to
God, not Caesar.
Happy Radical Mother’s Day!