Activist Roots of Mother’s Day

In 1925, Anna Jarvis was arrested for disturbing the peace at a Philadelphia confectioners convention.

The candy makers, she thought, had done poorly to profit though the commercialization of motherly affection.

I imagine the scene – dignified confectioners discussing various ganaches and pastries, Jarvis crashing in like Carrie Nation, perhaps similarly wielding a hatchet for good measure. Eventually getting carted off while still yelling at the profit mongers for twisting her invention.

No doubt it was significantly less dramatic, but that’s how I picture it.

In 1948, Jarvis died in Philadelphia’s Marshall Square Sanitarium, having spent her fortune fighting to stave off the commercialization of mother’s day.

She was unsuccessful.

Jarvis was, in fact, the founder of mother’s day. She had started the celebration in 1908 – three years after her own mother’s death – and worked to see it become a national holiday in 1914.

For much of her life, Jarvis’ mother, Anne Reeves Jarvis, organized Mothers’ Day Work Clubs which worked to address tragically high infant mortality rates and tended wounded soldiers from both sides of the U.S. Civil War.

The group’s motto was “Mothers Work — for Better Mothers, Better Homes, Better Children, Better Men and Women.” In the midst of war, its members fought hard for peace. Amongst so much injustice, the women fought for justice.

In 1870, abolitionist and member Julia Ward Howe articulated the vision of the work clubs with her Mother’s Day proclamation:

Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your 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 is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.

It goes on to call for a general congress of women “without limit of nationality.” After all, “as men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war,” women must now “leave all that may be left of home” in order to discover the means of peace.

So, this was what was in the mind of the young Anna Jarvis, three years after she buried her mother – founder of the radical Mothers’ Day Work Clubs – when, on May 10, 1908, she gathered 400 people at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, to commemorate her mother and celebrate the first Mother’s Day.

Jarvis asked that people wear carnations to remember all mothers.

And then she worked for the day to become a national holiday. A day for peace, for equity, for lifting the voices of women among the shouts of men and, yes, a day for sending a handwritten note to your own mother and thanking her for giving you so much.

So, perhaps, you can appreciate the devastation which motivated Jarvis’ rebellion as she saw this vision go awry. As she saw mother’s day devolve into little more than a day to buy flowers and chocolates, and, perhaps, to get you off the hook from calling your mother for another year.

While I can identify with Jarvis’ distaste for commercialization, in honesty, though, I’m not entirely enamored with Jarvis’ ideal mother’s day either.

She intentionally tried to frame the day as a holy day – organizing it on Sundays and celebrating in a church. And she intentionally called the day ‘mother’s day’ as opposed to ‘mothers’ day.’ It was a day to celebrate your own mother, she insisted, not a day to celebrate all mothers.

As one article puts it, “Jarvis retreated from her mother’s socially conscious vision for Mother’s Day in favor of one that idolized the mother’s individual role.”

This, I believe, was a mistake. Her visions of celebrating individual mothers for their sacred domestic role plays into all the tired tropes of separate spheres. We can do better than that.

And I’d give her a pass, say that Jarvis’ vision was simply a product of her time, but I can’t help but think that her mother would have envisioned something more radical – and, of course, her mother knew best.


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