“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.” ––Julia Ward Howe
Last year, we looked at the roots of our modern Mother’s Day holiday with a piece on Anna Jarvis’s quickly commercialized celebration and her fight to have the holiday that she established erased from the American calendar. What few remember though, is that years before Jarvis’s holiday took hold, Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist, early feminist, and the author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, worked to establish an earlier incarnation of Mother’s Day – a holiday with activism and the eradication of war as its goal. This year, with civic activism and simple humanity so intensely crucial again, we thought it was a good time to look back at the roots of a holiday that has come a long way from where it began.
Julia Ward Howe had tended to sick and dying soldiers during the American Civil War and worked with the widows and orphans of those men, witnessing firsthand the devastation of families that the war wrought. Haunted by the carnage and ravages of the short but brutal conflict, she became committed to the idea that women could play a crucial role in humanizing and civilizing societies so that conflicts and issues could be solved without loss of life. In 1870, she wrote her “Mother’s Day Proclamation for Peace” specifically targeting mothers because they were likely to be open to her call to stop the senseless killing of their sons, and not to men who may have felt proud of the services they rendered to their country during the war. She felt that women, as an innately more humane sex, had a responsibility to shape societies through political activism and that if women around the world banded together they could bring about the amicable settlement of issues between nations and eradicate war.
Portrait of Julia Ward Howe by John Elliott
On June 2nd 1872 Ward Howe held the first “Mother’s Day”, an anti-war demonstration and though she was able to keep the holiday going on that day every year in Boston for about another 10 years, she was unsuccessful in gaining the traction she needed to make her day internationally recognized. By the time Jarvis came along in the early 1900’s and began devoting herself to a day for the commemoration of motherhood, the spirit of political engagement and activism had been all but forgotten and as women had been established as the main consumers for their families, politicians, and business owners jumped on the newfound potential of such a day to wreak economic advantage.
The fledgling advertising industry quickly jumped onboard and even Jarvis’s intention that it be a day of rest to visit ones mother and attend church services was eliminated. Instead Americans were encouraged to honor their mother’s with gifts of candy and flowers, with the price of Carnations rising as high as $1 in some places. Jarvis was disgusted and outraged at the commercial takeover of her sentimental holiday, and as we saw last year, spent the rest of her life fighting to undo what she had fought so hard to create.