Greeting card commercials and overpriced bouquets may be the hallmarks of Mother’s Day, but this American tradition was actually launched by the feminist and pacifist ideologies of two determined women.
The idea originated with activist Julia Ward Howe (you may know her as the poet who wrote the famous “Battle Hymn of the Republic”). After witnessing the destruction of the Civil War, Howe, a staunch suffragist and pacifist, wrote the Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870, calling women to come together to rally for peace. “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience,” she wrote. “As men have often forsaken the plow 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 counsel.”
Despite Howe’s persuasive prose, Mother’s Day didn’t take root until more than three decades later, after a long and tireless campaign led by Anna Jarvis. Jarvis grew up watching her mother, Ann Marie Jarvis, a pacifist activist, hold Mother’s Day Work Clubs on sanitation in the hopes of lowering the infant mortality rate, and Mother’s Friendship Day events to unite sparring Civil War loyalists after the war. When Ann Marie Jarvis died in May 1905, her daughter vowed to create a day of recognition. Anna’s efforts started in earnest in 1908, and in 1912, President Woodrow Wilson signed a resolution declaring Mother’s Day the second Sunday in May.
It didn’t take long for corporations to realize what a cash cow this new holiday was, and cardmakers, chocolatiers, and florists quickly capitalized on Mother’s Day sentiments. Anna was appalled by the corporatization of her beloved cause, and spent the rest of her life fighting it, to no avail. “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world,” Jarvis said, according to the book Women Who Made A Difference. “And candy! You take a box to Mother — and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”
As you celebrate your mother this weekend, take to heart the origin of the holiday and pay tribute with a heartfelt gift that’s more than just lip service.
Lisa Butterworth is a writer and editor soaking up the eternal sunshine in Los Angeles. When she's not on the hunt for the latest and greatest in girl culture as the West Coast editor of BUST magazine, she's flea marketing, taco trucking, and generally raising a ruckus.