Blogs > Cliopatria > The War Against Mothers Day

May 14, 2006 3:30 pm

The War Against Mothers Day

In North America, at least, a lot of the spring holidays seem like also-rans: Heritage Day, Family Day, Administrative Professionals Day… They're like the movies that come out in Spring, neither summer blockbusters like the 1st or 4th of July, nor the prestige offerings of Winter and Fall. They're the Hallmark holidays. We celebrate them, if at all, with the dim sense we've been had by the Greeting Card Octopus or the Florists' Trust.

Mother's Day is different, of course. I've never really heard anyone complain about Mother's Day. And I'd never heard anything about its rather melodramatic history or its progressive roots until I read Stephanie Coontz' 1992 book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. (It's possible I'm just out of the loop, though: I see the story is all over the internets today.)

"Mother's Day originated to celebrate the organized activities of women outside the home," Coontz writes."The people who inspired Mother's Day … believed that motherhood was a political force. They wished to celebrate mothers' social roles as community organizers." The holiday became"trivialized and commercialized," she says, only after it was reoriented to celebrate private family relations.

The first American proponent of a day for mothers was Anna Reeves Jarvis, who organized Mothers' Work Days in West Virginia in the 1850s to improve sanitation in rural Appalachian communities. During the Civil War, Jarvis' mothers groups provided medical services for soldiers and civilians on both sides of the conflict. Another nineteenth-century precursor of the day for mothers was Julia Ward Howe's Mothers' Day for Peace, established in Boston in the wake of the Civil War.

Note the placement of those apostrophes. Jarvis and Howe organized Mothers' Days, in the plural, as vehicles for organized social and political activity by mothers, not the private celebration of a mother's services within the home. In the migration of the apostrophe one letter to the left—from Mothers' Day to Mother's Day—Coontz sees a declension both grammatical and political. After Anna Reeves Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter, also named Anna Jarvis, began lobbying for a special day for mothers. The idea caught on, but not in the way Jarvis had hoped:

The adoption of Mother's Day by the 63rd Congress on May 8, 1914 represented a reversal of everything the nineteenth century mothers' days had stood for. The speeches proclaiming Mother's Day in 1914 linked it to celebration of home life and privacy; they repudiated women's social role beyond the household. One antisuffragist leader inverted the original intent entirely when she used the new Mother's Day as an occasion to ask rhetorically: If a woman becomes"a mother to the Municipality, who is going to mother us?" Politicians found that the day provided as many opportunities for self-promotion as did the Fourth of July. Merchants hung testimonials to their own mothers above the wares they hoped to convince customers to buy for other mothers. A day that had once been linked to controversial causes was reduced to an occasion for platitudes and sales pitches.

Here's where the melodrama comes in. The younger Jarvis came to be horrified by what she had wrought. She attacked florists selling Mother's Day carnations as"profiteers," and railed against commercial greeting cards as a"poor excuses for the letter you are too lazy to write." In 1923, she tried to prevent a political and commercial celebration of Mother's Day by filing suit (against New York Governor Al Smith, among others) for copyright infringement. When she tried to prevent the sale of flowers at a Mother's Day festival, she was arrested for disturbing the peace. Jarvis spent the rest of her life (and her family inheritance) campaigning against the holiday, becoming more and more paranoid about those who"would undermine [Mothers' Day] with their greed." The final five-hanky Stella Dallas touch? Anna Jarvis was eventually committed to a sanitarium, where she died, blind and penniless, in 1948.

The history of Mother's Day is, for Coontz,"a microcosm of the simultaneous sentimentalization and commercialization of private life." I've got no right to criticize the sentimentalization of family life, at least not this year, as Ralph has pointed out. And railing against commercialization sometimes seems like railing against the tide. But maybe we can still find a lesson in the story of Anna Jarvis' moving apostrophe.

Today, Mother's Day seems the least political of holidays. The political clout of modern mothers does get a nod in our discussions of Soccer Moms and Security Moms, Peace Moms and Earth Moms. (Me, I'm rooting for the appearance of Net Neutrality Moms.) It's tempting to dismiss these as focus groups rather than movements—marketing labels in an era where political ideas are not something mothers or other citizens generate but rather consume. But that is reductive. And if it is our collective sentimentality about motherhood gives a figure like Cindy Sheehan such political resonance, is that such a bad thing? Maybe it's possible to reimagine, or remember, Mothers' Day as a holiday that simultaneously honors our private relationships and celebrates the political engagement of mothers and others with society.

Hi Mom! Happy Mothers' Day.

Crossposted to Old is the New New.

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More Comments:

Linda Gene Armatage - 5/20/2006

Thank you for the GREAT background about this yucky "holiday." I think it is a celebration for men. This was pointed out when Public Radio ran a SERIOUS "story" about Mozart's mother, as if popping out a guy made someone's life worthwhile. After that, the day in May always made me, as a mother, want to stay in bed with the door closed amd grumble. For heaven's sake, put yourself in the place of the one so "honored." While trying to take care of the family (after working 8+ hours at a crummy job), poor Mom has to buy cards and gifts for her own mother and her husband's mother, whom she KNOWS feel exactly the same way she does, while a bunch of GUYS who sell really dumb stuff that nobody needs make a LOT of money. Why don't men just declare a National Guilt Day, or a "Weren't You Lucky to Have ME Day?" Father's Day isn't the same, because everybody knows fathering a kid is just gravy for a dad. He is recognized for being, well, Mozart. Grrrrr!!!!

Rob MacDougall - 5/15/2006

Yikes, you're right. Thanks, Ralph. Obviously when we start correcting each other's typos we begin a arms race of pedantry that neither side can win.

Caleb McDaniel - 5/15/2006

Great post, Rob. Maybe this shows that we've actually out-separated the separate spherists of the nineteenth century.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/15/2006

But, seriously, Rob, thanks for a great Mothers Day post!

Ralph E. Luker - 5/14/2006

It being Mother's Day and all, I just didn't have the heart to tell your mom that you misspelled "Condoleezza" in your list of five top most boss names of Secretaries of State.

Rob MacDougall - 5/14/2006

Well, this makes me feel grown up: my own mother, in comments to this post at Old is the New New, tells me to tell "that Luker boy" that my mushy response to parenthood, noted above "arises from the deepest wellsprings of the human experience, and that saccharin as an adjective has an e". She also threatens to talk to Ralph's mother.

(In other news, my Dad can beat up your Dads.)