A proclamation to my Mom and all Mothers:
In honor of my mother—a historian who has raised a like-minded historian—I did some research on “Mother’s Day” history to help me decide how to observe it. Last week, when you visited me in Nashville, you admired the book I’m reading, “The Way We Never Were: American Families and The Nostalgia Trap” by Stephanie Coontz. Using this book and other sources to learn about 19th-century mothers’ celebrations has inspired my non-traditional (but actually more traditional) “Mother’s Day” gift this year.
According to Koontz, the modern “Mother’s Day” originated from local holidays based on women’s organized action in public life: “They wished to celebrate mothers’ social roles as community organizers, honoring women who acted on behalf of the entire future generation rather than simply putting their own children first” (Coontz 152). Some of the most influential of these holidays were started by Anna Reeves Jarvis. In 1858, Anna Reeves organized “Mothers’ Day Work clubs” to “improve health and sanitary conditions” (Wikipedia). Like you, she was an advocate for public and, particularly, children’s health (so I’m sure you already know about her). During the Civil War, these mother clubs expanded to offer health services to soldiers on both sides. After the war, Anna initiated a “Mothers Friendship Day” to help bring together the divided nation.
In fact, throughout the 19th century, many women’s groups led community activities and tried to establish holidays against war. For example, Julia Ward Howe–the famed activist and abolitionist who penned “Battle Hymn of the Republic”–also started an annual observance called “Mother’s Day for Peace” which was “celebrated widely in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and other Eastern States until the turn of the century (152). For this celebration, Howe wrote her (later-named) “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” based on her “conviction that women had a responsibility to shape their societies at the political level” (Wikipedia). Howe’s cause was not a celebration of women’s contributions in the domestic sphere, but their unique ability to effect positive change if they went outside of it: “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 council.” In 1877, there was another unrelated May celebration of mothers: in honor of their public temperance reform work. While not legislatively “official,” these widespread 19th-century mothers’ days recognized women’s work for controversial, political issues on which mothers were considered authorities.
“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 council.“
–Julia Ward Howe
And before I get to the modern, 20th-century holiday, an important grammatical note for my editor mother: all these mother holidays were set in the plural. Now we have “Mother’s Day.” Back then, we had “Mothers’ Day.” Originally, this holiday was a practical “vehicle for organized social and political action by all mothers, not for celebrating the private services of one’s own particular mother” (152). Thus, not only was the holiday an occasion to appreciate the power of multiple mothers to “council” together to effect social change, but it was itself an occasion for them to do that united work.
The “official” national holiday wasn’t established until 1914. After Anna Reeves died in 1907, her daughter Anna Marie scheduled a “Mother’s Day” in honor of all mothers near the anniversary of her mom’s death (in May 1908). In 1910, West Virginia declared the holiday official, and in 1914, Congress passed a national law. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the holiday a day “for American citizens to show the flag in honor of those mothers whose sons had died in war”—recalling the holiday’s roots in mothers’ special authority relating to war (Wikipedia).
Nevertheless, as soon as it became official, “Mother’s Day” was already becoming personalized and commercialized. For example, “speeches proclaiming Mother’s Day in 1914 linked it to celebration of home life and privacy” (153). One anti-suffragist explicitly linked celebrating women’s domestic mothering with repudiating their civic motherly role. Merchants “hung testimonials” to their mothers to encourage customers to buy products expressing their own praise.
Thus, contrary to popular criticism that Mother’s Day has been corrupted from its original focus on women’s domestic and child-rearing family contribution, it is actually this sentimental, personalized focus that is itself the corruption. The singular “Mother’s” Day that encourages gratitude for meals through “breakfast in bed” and symbolic appreciation for unpaid domestic labor through “flowers” is as much a distortion of the holiday’s original spirit as is the commercial culture that exploits these “traditions” for profit (151). Mother’s Day is the third largest holiday in the US for greeting cards (hence your “hand-made” virtual card) (The Guardian). Restaurants, jewelry, clothes, and pampering (e.g., spa treatments) have also made a fortune (National Retail Federation). While profit alone isn’t necessarily cause for criticism, these companies have made money without recognizing the more significant “moral and political” contributions mothers can and do make to our society (154).
Interestingly (and symbolically), Anna Marie, who started Mother’s Day in honor of her social activist mother, was arrested in 1948 for protesting the commercialization of Mother’s Day. Apparently, it had strayed so far from her intentions, she “wished she never would have started the day” (wikipedia). She died that same year (guess where? A sanitarium). One might say modern “Mother’s Day” isn’t about celebrating and encouraging mothers who speak out about controversial, public issues. Now, we value mothers who use their inside voices.
Admittedly, I am grateful for the so-called “traditional” motherly gifts that have been selflessly bestowed on my siblings and me since birth. But considering I have done breakfast in bed, flowers, restaurants, and lotion many times—and that I’m no longer in a proximity to do them in any personal way—I thought I’d take a more traditional (i.e., historically rooted) approach.
Therefore, this year my present is a contribution to your non-profit Start School Later (not my first and not my last). While your own children inspired your awareness and passion for this particular cause, your current work is done in the name of children and the public’s health and safety more generally. Your Ph.D. in the history of public health and your skill in advocacy, organization, and public education—added to your personal experience as a mother—collectively make you a powerful leader in building a better society for all of us.
And of course, you don’t do this alone. You bring together other mothers and community members who similarly defend public health, safety, and education. Moreover, you are part of a long history of women using their expertise as mothers and citizens for social action.
So, for this Mother’s Day, I am expressing my gratitude for your public work. I am so proud that you defend students’ rights to sleep, safety, and an equitable and quality education. I am in awe of the tireless efforts of your fellow Start School Later activists. And I am honored by the labors of your predecessors—which have inspired your work from the very beginning.
Thank you for your passion, your persistence, your sacrifice, and your skill—and Happy “Mothers’ Day.”
Your admiring daughter,
P.S. Mom, please comment with a link to where I can best make my SSL contribution. And if anyone else wants to express their gratitude to these activist mothers, please use the link and add your donation!
P.P.S. Or is it Mother’s’ Day?
P.P.P.S. A song celebrating women in politics, inspired by a conversation with my mother in 4th grade “Great Books” club.