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The true story of Mother’s Day

Posted 5/13/20

Last week mothers all over the country were honored, or to the chagrin of some, overlooked by their children. Grandmas and great-grandmas and first-time mothers and many-times over mothers received …

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The true story of Mother’s Day


Last week mothers all over the country were honored, or to the chagrin of some, overlooked by their children. Grandmas and great-
grandmas and first-time mothers and many-times over mothers received cards, flowers, candy, presents, and even breakfast in bed. A lot of those gift-givers and gift-receivers had no idea about the real origins of Mother’s Day.
Some think that it’s a holiday that started when Anna Jarvis decided to honor her mother in 1908. Some believe it was a holiday that Hallmark invented, but Hallmark’s first Mother’s Day card wasn’t printed until the 1920s. In fact, Mother’s Day was started in the 1870s by women determined to gather their voices and their forces in the name of peace. Appalled by the carnage of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, the women felt they needed to gain power to change the culture of war created by men.
As happened in World War II, during the Civil War women had to step up and take over many jobs that men usually did. They worked on farms and in war industries while also raising money for the war effort, nursing soldiers, and raising children. They liked being involved and had no intention of stepping back, but their hopes of getting the vote through the 14th Amendment were dashed when only African-American men were granted citizenship in 1868.
In 1869, women organized the rival National American Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association to promote women’s rights. Julia Ward Howe, who gained fame as the author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic early in the Civil War, was a key activist with the women’s group. She was motivated less by a belief that women had a right to be equal to men than by her belief that women had a special role to perform in the world. She asked, “Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters {of warmongering} to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone know and bear the cost?” She wrote an “Appeal to Womanhood throughout the World,” saying they should not praise their men for “mutual murder” nor allow “our sons to be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience.
Her impassioned plea really spoke to me, as I have often wondered how mothers, and fathers too, could bear to send their sons or daughters to war. How could their hearts not break when their children leave to fight, and again when they don’t return, or when they do, damaged in body and mind? How could they send their children off to kill other mothers children? I remember feeling anguished when boys I grew up with were drafted into the Vietnam War, for I knew they had been brought up to be thoughtful, sensitive human beings. How could these smart, caring young men obey orders blindly that they felt to be wrong? How could they just shift personas and kill people and not be altered forever? One classmate knew he couldn’t and left for Canada, unable to return for many years. Another friend did go in the army, but went AWOL when bayonet drills were begun. He was 6’6” tall, and the height of his bayonet was right in the faces of shorter men. He couldn’t do it, and he headed for the border, also.
Julia Howe spoke to that feeling 100 years before I did in her Mother’s Day Peace Proclamation: “We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
She proposed to have Mother’s Day on June 2 when the weather was more benign, so women could gather. She put out the plea to women to “then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after their own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.” She had a vision for an international congress of women gathering “to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”
She changed her focus when she realized that scheme was too grand, and started at a grassroots level with women’s clubs to encourage activism and united action. She was successful in launching a Mother’s Day in the spring, dedicated to peace activism by women, but companies like Hallmark have done their best to gloss over the true origins of the holiday, changing the apostrophe to denote the single mother.
Mother’s Day is celebrated in many countries with its own flavor. In Mexico, flowers are a tradition as well as a day full of music, food, celebrations, and often a morning serenade of the song “Las Mananitas” from mariachi singers.
In the former Soviet Union, mothers were celebrated on International Women’s Day on March 8, a date that has since become an internationally-observed day to honor women and the goal of gender equality.
In the 20th Century, Japan honored the Empress Koujun’s birthday, but Mother’s Day has since been moved to the second Sunday in May, when the Japanese give their mothers lots of gifts, primarily flowers. 
Beginning in the 16th century, the U.K. observed a day called Mothering Sunday on the fourth Sunday in Lent, when families came together to attend church. In the early 20th century, the day which had evolved into a tradition of spending family time at home was fused with the Hallmark-card-giving American holiday, but it has retained its traditional name and date.
Underlying the many ways that mothers are remembered and honored is the awareness, I’m quite sure, that women are the people who create households with love, strength, and commitment to their values, who give unstintingly to their families and to the broader community, weaving together the actions, the caring, and the building of relationships that are needed to keep families and communities strong.
We’re still working for that elusive equality in the workplace and the pay packet, but few would question the worth of the women in their lives. So, let’s honor all those women and elect a whole lot more of them to offices throughout our state and nation and make Julia Howe’s vision come alive.


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