Last week, I received an email message from the Ploughshares Fund, a nuclear disarmament advocacy foundation, asking, "What does Mother's Day Mean to You?" Suspecting that the correct answer was something other than a dozen roses and a box of chocolates, I read on:
Over the years, we've lost the original meaning of Mother's Day to Hallmark-style commercialism. ... Mother's Day originally grew out of abolitionist Julia Ward Howe's Mother's Day Proclamation in the wake of the Civil War, calling for a day for women to promote peace and disarmament.
As it happens, I was already familiar with Julia Ward Howe's "Mother's Day Proclamation."
In 1870 Howe drafted the forceful pacifist manifesto -- also known as her "Appeal to Womanhood throughout the World" -- in which she called upon women worldwide to protest war and demand universal disarmament. "The sword of murder is not the balance of justice," she declared.
Howe wanted women to join together for a day to advocate for peace.
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 solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means/ Whereby the great human family can live in peace.
Three years later, Howe organized the first Mother's Day Peace Festival, which was celebrated on June 2, 1873, in eighteen cities throughout the country. But Howe's effort to engage American mothers in pacifist advocacy largely failed. There was not even sufficient enthusiasm to mount a similar celebration the following year. As Howe would recall in her 1899 autobiography, "The ladies ... were not much interested in my scheme of a world-wide protest of women against the cruelties of war."
Howe's pacifist activism is particularly remarkable, given that she earlier wrote the North's most famous Civil War song. In November 1861, as the war entered the first of what would be four winters, she penned the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The song was quickly adopted as the unofficial Union anthem. In its lines Howe envisions the Northern soldiers fighting a righteous war with God's blessing. "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; ... He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword; ... Glory, glory, hallelujah!"
But having witnessed the full devastation of the Civil War, Howe experienced a change of heart. By the end of the decade, she had become an adamant opponent of war. So, Mother's Day was launched as a pacifist crusade by the very same woman who wrote America's most enduring war anthem. What have we made of Howe's legacy?
Howe deeded to us both her "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and her "Mother's Day Proclamation." Yet we have remembered the one and largely forgotten the other.
The "Battle Hymn of the Republic" has been peformed and recorded by Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, among others. In the past decade alone, the song's strains have echoed in the National Cathedral during the 9/11 Memorial Service and resounded over the funeral gatherings for Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. The U.S. Army Chorus performed the "Battle Hymn" on the White House lawn for Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. And most recently, Amy Chua titled her extreme-parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom.
Meanwhile, Julia Ward Howe's pacifist proclamation and her work organizing the American chapter of the Woman's International Peace Association have been largely forgotten.
With war still ongoing in Afghanistan and American fighter planes now flying over the Libyan desert, let's make Julia Ward Howe and the pacifist origins of Mother's Day a part of our holiday celebration. But that's not to say that we mothers can't enjoy some flowers and candy, too.
If my sons could please take note: breakfast in bed and a pound or two of dark chocolates would do nicely. Glory, hallelujah!
Cynthia Wachtell is the author of War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914 and a research associate professor of American Studies at Yeshiva University.