“Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts.”
These are the opening words of the “Appeal to Womanhood” penned by Julia Ward Howe in 1870. She dreamed of a special day, a “Mothers’ Day,” when women around the world would rise up and demand an end to killing.
MILLION MOMS MARCH, 2015
On Saturday, May 9, 2015, hundreds of mothers and others gathered for a Mothers’ Day weekend march on Washington to demand an end to the killing of their children by highly militarized police forces in the U.S.
Police abuse of power has been a headline-grabbing aspect of institutionalized racism in recent months and a galvanizing focus of the new anti-racism movement sweeping the nation from Ferguson to Baltimore.
“Mothers for Justice United” was the primary organizer of Saturday’s event. This action would have made Julia Ward Howe proud.
HOWE’S DREAM OF PEACE
In 1862, Howe, living in the shadow of her famous abolitionist-reformer husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, wrote a poem which, when set to a popular folk tune, became the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the semi-official song of the Union army during the Civil War. It made Julia famous overnight.
Almost ten years later, she was overcome by grief at the outbreak of another war — the Franco-Prussian war. The world seemed steeped in endless bloodshed. Convinced that there were better ways to solve conflicts, she called on the women of the world to “interfere in these matters.” This was strong stuff in the days before women had the right to vote or much say in their own destinies.
In 1870, she convened a meeting of leading activists in New York City. In her opening statement she said, “Patience and passivity are sometimes in place for women — not always … If women did not waste life in frivolity, men would not waste it in murder.” She hoped her call to action would “pierce through dirt and rags … through velvet and cashmere.”
Howe hoped to arrange a Woman’s Peace Congress. Instead, in 1873, she established a festival called “Mothers’ Day,” intending it to be an annual day for women’s advocacy for peace and justice. For several years, this Day was celebrated in Boston, New York, Edinburgh, London, Geneva, and, at least once, in Constantinople.
In 1876, women came to Philadelphia from France, Italy, England, and Germany. Multilingual Howe translated every speech into English on the spot. Exciting as this was, her Mothers’ Day never caught on in the general population.
ANNA JARVIS THREW HER SALAD ON THE FLOOR
Anna Jarvis (1864-1948) knew that her mother, Ann, was a remarkable woman. Of Ann’s eleven children, only four lived to adulthood. The others died in epidemics common in their West Virginia Appalachian community. This inspired Ann to organize Mothers Work Days in the 1858, to teach women new ideas about hygiene and better sanitation.
During the Civil War, Ann urged women to assist both Confederate and Union wounded. After the war, she created a “Mothers Friendship Day” to bring people together in their bitterly divided region. She braved death threats to call for reconciliation. At one event she organized, a band played both “Dixie” and the “Star Spangled Banner” (a popular patriotic song, not yet the national anthem). Then, everyone stood and sang “Auld Lang Syne.”
After her courageous and visionary mother died, Anna wanted to honor her. She lobbied hard for a national “Mother’s Day.” With the approval of Congress, Mother’s Day was proclaimed official by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914.
Before you could say “M is for the Many things she gave me; O means only that she’s growing Old…” (from a song titled “Mother,” written in 1915 and loathed by mothers everywhere), the day became a sentimental success, especially for greeting card manufacturers and florists.
By 1920, Anna was deeply sorry she’d ever thought of Mothers’ Day. Hating its commercialization, she spent what money she had lobbying against it. She never married and was never a mother.
One day, so the story goes, Anna ate at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia, which had been an early endorser of her Mother’s Day. In their Tea Room, they offered a “Mother’s Day Salad” on the menu. Anna ordered it, but, when it was served, she stood up, threw the salad to the floor, and walked out, leaving the money on the table. It was a futile gesture. Her holiday had taken hold, and she hated it. It is said that Anna Jarvis died blind, bitter, and broke.
WOMEN RECLAIM THE DAY
Here’s a brief sampling of actions showing how women have attempted to reclaim Mother’s Day as a day of action for peace and justice.
~ 1987, lesbians in Seattle held a Mother’s Day demonstration to call attention to custody battles fought by lesbian mothers
~ 1981, 700 women in Washington, D.C. marched through the rain, protesting the Reagan administration’s increased military budget.
~ 1987, Clergy and Laity Concerned, an interfaith peace and justice organization, proclaimed a Mother’s Day of Mourning in response to the US-sponsored war against Nicaragua.
~ 1992, The Church of Gethsemane in Brooklyn (Presbyterian U.S.A.) began a yearly Mother’s Day public awareness campaign on behalf of “women in prison, children in crisis,” providing congregations across the country with origami flowers and bookmarks, suggested prayers, and informational readings.
~ 2000, Million Mom March in Washington, D.C. drew 750,000 people to promote gun control legislation
~ 2015, Million Mom March was organized to protest police violence.
TO GO DEEPER
“After Baltimore, A Call to Reclaim Mother’s Day” by Valerie Bell, 4/28/15 in Foreign Policy In Focus,
“The Radical History of Mother’s Day” by Matthew Paul, 5/11/14, The Daily Beast.
“Anna Jarvis Was Sorry She Ever Invented Mother’s Day” by Joel Oliphint, May 8, 2015, BuzzFeed.
“A Tale of Two Days: Mother’s Day and International Women’s Day” in This River of Courage: Generations of Women’s Resistance and Action by Pam McAllister (New Society Publishers, 1991).
Mother’s Day for Peace by bravenewfoundation (2:50) Introduced by Gloria Steinem, famous women read Julia Ward Howe’s “Mother’s Day Proclamation” — Alfre Woodard, Vanessa Williams, Ashraf salimian, and others.
Julia’s Voice Documentary: Take Back Mothers Day (Part 1) [9:09 mins]