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Judith O’Neill

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May 10, 2013
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Looking back at your mother’s Mother’s Day

Every year, some people grumble about the commercialism of Mother’s Day. But would any of you dare to ignore this holiday? Unthinkable to fail to honor your mother at least on this one day of the year. And if you’re a mom, you’ll be devastated if your kids don’t honor you in some way.

Believe it or not, the women who conceived of the original Mother’s Day back in the 19th century would be bewildered if not shocked by all the ads for the “perfect gift for Mom.” They would be expecting women to be marching in the streets, not eating brunch with their families in restaurants. Why? Because Mother’s Day began as a holiday that commemorated women’s public activism to create peace and justice in their communities, in their country and in the world. It was not conceived of as a celebration of a mother’s individual devotion to her family.

How did we get from a holiday of engaged activism for the common good to a holiday that is full of a culture of growing consumerism that now celebrates the private sacrifices made by individual mothers?

Thanks to research by history professor Ruth Rosen at the University of California, Davis, we can learn about the holiday that began in activism: Beginning with a Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870, Julia Ward Howe, author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” proposed an annual Mother’s Day for Peace. Committed to abolishing war, Howe wrote, ”Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage … Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

For the next 30 years, Americans celebrated Mother’s Day for Peace June 2. Honoring mothers meant activism with rallies in the streets and speeches that talked of the special responsibility that all had to help turn America into a more civilized nation, which did not fight wars. The women activists who gathered each June 2 for public Mother’s Day celebrations made the connection between motherhood and the struggle for peace, social and economic justice.

Professor Rosen writes another piece of the history, “In 1913, Congress declared the second Sunday in May to be Mother’s Day. By then, the growing consumer culture had successfully redefined women as consumers for their families. Politicians and businessmen eagerly embraced the idea of celebrating the private sacrifices made by individual mothers. As the Florist’s Review, the industry’s trade journal, bluntly put it, “This is a holiday that could be exploited.” And as we all can see, Mother’s Day has blossomed into a billion-dollar industry.

This Sunday, if you drive or walk down Mill Street in Grass Valley between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m., you’ll probably see some of the women of the Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains dressed in period clothing, who like their sister, Julia Ward Howe, are celebrating Mother’s Day as an outcry against war.

Yes, Julia Ward Howe was known for writing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but she would later write the following Mother’s Day proclamation after the Civil War. And many women and men would gather as this proclamation was publicly read, as a protest to the carnage of that war.

Mother’s Day proclamation, Julia Ward Howe, Boston, 1870:

“Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth, a voice goes up with our own. It says ‘Disarm, disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.’

“Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession. 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. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after their own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

“In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”

Judith Ellen O’Neill is a community organizer who lives in Grass Valley. In the last 35 years, she has spent part of her Mother’s Day wherever she lived reading the Mother’s Day proclamation publicly in celebration of Julia Ward Howe’s vision for peace.

How did we get from a holiday of engaged activism for the common good to a holiday that is full of a culture of growing consumerism that now celebrates the private sacrifices made by individual mothers?


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The Union Updated May 10, 2013 09:36PM Published May 29, 2013 01:41AM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.