The Radical History of Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day was born in the aftermath of the Civil War, as a rallying cry for women worldwide to oppose war and fight for social justice.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters

This week, the world’s eyes turned toward Nigeria. While the news that hundreds of young woman had been kidnapped from their schools by the terrorist group Boko Haram was slow to gain our attention, over the last ten days, that changed. Everybody from world leaders to Kardashians have joined the social media outcry. But among the loudest voices who helped bring the terrorism happening in Nigeria to our attention were moms. Many of social media’s most influential moms, women who were not only outraged that the news story hadn’t received the media attention it deserved but also felt profoundly connected to the horror that befell the young women and the devastation their parents were feelings, used their online platforms to voice, tweet, and Instagram their protest.

One of those moms was Kristen Howerton, a family and marriage therapist who blogs at Rage Against the Minivan, wrote, “We don’t need photos of the girls or interviews with the parents to prompt us to care . . . we just need our humanity. We need to see these girls as daughters, sisters, nieces, and friends. We need to imagine this happening in our own community… [because] girls matter. Everwhere.”

Sarah Bessey, a Canadian blogger and the author of Jesus Feminist, Sarah Bessey offered a prayer, “[God] We know that your heart is for rescue and for life. May we move with you, however we can, to rescue, restore, and redeem our girls and their neighborhoods from this evil still stalking the land.”

The sentiments of Howerton and Bessey sum up much of the collective protest among the plethora of American moms who have hashtagged their thoughts, prayers, and grief with #BringBackOurGirls. While some believe that #BringBackOurGirls going viral is futile attention and others suggest it might be making the situation worse, there’s something about this viral outcry that seems somewhat reminiscent of how Americans like Julie Ward Howe once imagined the true spirit of Mother’s Day.

You see, long before Mother’s Day became an international celebration of cards, bouquets, brunches, and gifts—a one-day momfest that here in the U.S. has grown into a $20-billion-dollar-a-year industry—this holiday was rooted, at least, here in America, in “radical feminism” and progressive Christianity.

Arise then...women of this day! Howe, a Boston poet and the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was likely pissed off the day she wrote those words, the first line of a poem called “A Mother’s Day Proclamation.” In 1870, the well-known abolitionist, still grieving over the Civil War and angry about the start of the Franco-Prussian War, began to envision a new cause, a rallying of the world’s women to rise up and unite for peace.

The opening stanza of poetic challenge went like this:

Arise then...women of this day!Arise, all women who have hearts!Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!Say firmly:“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,For caresses and applause.Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearnAll that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.We, the women of one country,Will be too tender of those of another countryTo allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

After writing the proclamation, Howe worked to have the poem translated into numerous languages and spent the next two years of her life traveling the globe, distributing her Mother’s Day poem and speaking to women about the cause. Because of Howe’s work, communities throughout Massachusetts and in other parts of New England began organizing annual Mother’s Day gatherings, gatherings that were grounded in faith, feminism, and protest. Howe, in addition to Ann Reeves Jarvis, a West Virginian Methodist and social activist who organized Mother’s Day Work Clubs in hopes of educating poor women about health and hygiene, inspired a movement that would one day, in 1908, lead Jarvis’s daughter, Anna Jarvis, to organize the first Mother’s Day celebrations in Grafton, West Virginia and Philadelphia. Jarvis’s dedication to the cause, an idea that, for her, was a tribute to her motherled a growing number of states and cities to observe the celebration. Then, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made the holiday official, declaring the second Sunday in May to be Mother’s Day, a nationally recognized commemoration.

However, nine years later, after seeing her idea turn into a holiday gold mine, Jarvis began using her voice to protest against commercialization of Mother’s Day, even calling for boycotts. “This is not what I intended. I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit.”

Howe would have likely been even more disappointed. Her proclamation for Mother’s Day included a much loftier vision than mere sentiment: “Whereby the great human family can live in peace,” she wrote, “each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God … To promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”

Though today’s celebration of Mother’s Day is a far cry from what Howe hoped it would be, maybe we have encountered a truer spirit of how she envisioned this holiday in these days leading up to its 100th anniversary. Perhaps amid the loud and viral chorus of prayers and protests from mothers all over the world calling for justice in Nigeria, the echo of Howe’s words can heard: Arise then...women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts.