05/13/2006 01:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The "Mother" of Mother's Day And Her Crazy Ideas

julia ward howe.jpg

How many Americans will celebrate Mother's Day tomorrow knowing that this holiday was started as a protest against war? When the President calls his mother (if he does), will they pause for a moment to honor the memory of Julia Ward Howe?

Howe was a poet best known for writing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which pumped up Northern troops during the Civil War with words like these:

Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with His heel.
I have seen Him in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps;
His day is marching on.

But the devastation caused by the war she supported scarred her psychically, turning her into a committed pacifist.

Julia Ward Howe had three ideas that seemed radical and hopelessly Utopian to the "moderates" of her day. First, she thought slavery should be abolished (not just in the North but in every state - an extreme position for the time). Second, she believed that women should have the right to vote. Lastly, she was a pacifist who wanted to put a permanent end to war.

She conceived of "Mother's Day" (and yes, I use the word "conceive" deliberately!) as a response to the devastation of the Civil War. In her Mother's Day Proclamation she called for an international conference of women for peace.

She wrote in that proclamation:

"We will not have great questions decided 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 unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

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 our dishonor, nor violence indicate possession."

There's only the slightest hint of a "Lysistrata" strategy in these lines. You may remember the Aristophanes play, where the women of Athens barricaded themselves and refused to have sex with their men until they put an end to war. When we staged it in college during the 70's, we were surprised to find exchanges like this:

WOMAN SENTRY: Identify yourself!
MAN: I am Cinesias, son of Penis.
SENTRY: Ah, yes, Penis. Your name is ever on her lips.

But Howe lived in a more repressed time, where "caresses and applause" stood in discreetly for more erotic terms.

Lines like "Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice," and "violence (does not) indicate possession" were passionate enough, though. They made her poem a hit "protest song" of its time. As for Mother's Day, Howe got the idea from Anna Jarvis, an Appalachian housewife who organized "Mother's Work Days" to provide sanitary conditions for troops on both sides of the Civil War. Jarvis went on to promote worker health and safety issues, as well as reconciliation between Northern and Southern soldiers.

Political commentators spend most of their time pondering electoral politics, and debating strategies for taking Congress or the White House. Nobody wants to sound too radical, too extreme. But this Mother's Day, why not take a moment to remember Julia Ward Howe? She's the one with those three crazy ideas. Two of them have already become reality.

Why can't the third one come true, too? Sure, it's just a dream today. But as another poet wrote, "In dreams begins responsibility."

Happy Mother's Day.

A Night Light