The Feminist Anti-War Roots of Mother's Day
You wouldn't know it from a visit to the Hallmark card store, but the origin of Mother's Day in the U.S. has feminist anti-war roots. The earliest celebrations honoring mothers trace back to ancient times and were primarily spiritual in nature. They centered around goddesses and other icons that represented motherhood.
Over time, celebrations shifted to focus on mothers themselves, and their contributions to families and society. As the holiday made its way to the United States in the early 1900s, it took a significant turn, becoming a call out to mothers to join in the common purpose of ending war. Two very different women helped shape this vision in the late 1860s and 1870s in response to the gruesomeness of the Civil War.
Ann Jarvis, a young Appalachian homemaker who had been a leader in community health, organized women's nursing brigades to treat soldiers from both sides of the war. When the war was over, the club's name transformed to Mother's Day Friendship Clubs, and they worked to help former enemies reconcile and live in peace together.
Ann Jarvis' work inspired Julia Ward Howe, a New Yorker from a wealthy family, who was a poet, an abolitionist, and a suffragette. In 1870, she wrote a document called the Mother's Day Proclamation that called on women across nations to convene in a general congress as soon as possible to plan how to put an end to all wars.
Her document made a big impact because of her prominent position in the community, and because a decade before that she had written what has now become one of the most famous patriotic songs—the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Her efforts at using the Mother's Day Proclamation as an anti-war organizing tool spread to almost 20 U.S. cities over the next few years, but dissipated once she stopped supporting it financially.
It took several decades before Mother's Day became a national holiday, and when it did in 1916, its purpose was to be "a public expression of love and reverence for the mothers of our country." This reverence had a concrete limitation because that very same year Congress voted down the Susan B. Anthony amendment giving women the right to vote. Reverence yes, political power no.
Far from its anti-war roots, Mother's Day became almost instantly commercialized. It has grown into the second largest consumer-spending day in the United States, with close to $15 billion dollars in spending on flowers, food, jewelry and other tokens of appreciation. While taking a day out of our normal routine to tip our hats to mom is nice, imagine if the original vision to end war had been realized.
Over the past century, mothers have increasingly become the primary victims of armed conflict, with 82 percent of those impacted by war being women and children. The raping of women has increasingly become a weapon of war and it is estimated that in recent decades 20 million children have become orphaned as a result of conflict. Ending war is everyone's issue, but mother's—who bear life—have a primary stake.
As mothers in the United States, we are in a unique and pivotal position to contribute to the next chapter in ending war. The U.S. is responsible for almost 50% of the world's spending on military activity, placing it number one as global aggressor. As mothers with political power, we have the capacity to shape this country's human security policy, and we can make an enormous difference.
As Julia Ward Howe envisioned 140 years ago, we will be joining mothers across nations who are now organizing massive efforts for peace. There are “congresses” as she described in the original proclamation, happening on every continent, and the United Nations has just created UN Women, which, among other initiatives, seeks to place women at the center of peace talks and reconciliation efforts.
This June in Vienna, in honor of Mother's Day, Women Without Borders is convening a program sponsored by their SAVE initiative—Sisters Against Violent Extremism.
SAVE is the world's first female counter-terrorism platform. The event is called “Mothers Move.” It will bring together eight women from around the world who have suffered from terrorism. These women are turning their pain into action, and working, as Anna Jarvis did, to reconcile with those considered to be their enemy.
And there are many other amazing women's organizations, old and new, working to end war and violence, like the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, which was founded in 1915, the year after Mother's Day was created. There is Code Pink; Women for Women International; V-Day, Women Waging Peace, the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, and the list is growing by the day.
Mothers in this country may not be on the front line of most wars, but we can be on the front line of ending war. This mother's day, I urge us to pick up the trail of the day's origins, and I send gratitude to Ann Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe and all the other mothers working for peace.
Carla Goldstein, JD, is Omega Institute’s chief external affairs officer and director of the Women’s Institute at Omega. She is an attorney with 20 years of experience in public interest advocacy and has worked extensively in city and state government on issues related to women’s rights, poverty, public health, and social justice.