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Diana Butler Bass

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The Radical History Of Mothers Day

Posted: 05/11/2013 11:23 am

At first glance, Mother's Day appears a quaint and conservative holiday, a sort of greeting card moment, honoring 1950s values, a historical throw back to old-fashioned notions of hearth and home.

Let's correct that impression by saying: Happy Radical Mother's Day.

In May 1907, Anna Jarvis, a member of a Methodist congregation in Grafton, West Virginia, passed out 500 white carnations in church to commemorate the life of her mother. One year later, the same Methodist church created a special service to honor mothers. Many progressive and liberal Christian organizations -- like the YMCA and the World Sunday School Association -- picked up the cause and lobbied Congress to make Mother's Day a national holiday. And, in 1914, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson made it official and signed Mother's Day into law. Thus began the modern celebration of Mother's Day in the United States.

For some years, radical Protestant women had been agitating for a national Mother's Day hoping that it would further a progressive political agenda that favored issues related to women's lives. In the late 19th century, Julia Ward Howe (better know for the "Battle Hymn of the Republic") expressed this hope in her 1870 prose-poem, "A Mother's Day Proclamation" calling women to pacifism and political resistance:

Arise then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly...
"Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe our dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough 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...
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, But of God -

Years later, Anna Jarvis intended the new holiday to honor all mothers beginning with her own -- Anna Reeves Jarvis, who had died in 1905. Although now largely forgotten, Anna Reeves Jarvis was a social activist and community organizer who shared the political views of other progressive women like Julia Ward Howe.

In 1858, Anna Reeves Jarvis organized poor women in Virginia into "Mothers' Work Day Clubs" to raise the issue of clean water and sanitation in relation to the lives of women and children. She also worked for universal access to medicine for the poor. Reeves Jarvis was also a pacifist who served both sides in the Civil War by working for camp sanitation and medical care for soldiers of the North and the South.

Although I've never seen it on a pastel flowered greeting card, Mother's Day honors a progressive feminist, inclusive, non-violent vision for world community -- born in the imagination of women who devoted themselves to God, not Caesar.

Happy Radical Mother's Day!

 

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