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The Radical History of Mother's Day


By Laura Kacere, Nation of Change

There’s a good number of us who question holidays like Mother’s Day in which you spend more time feeding money into a system that exploits our love for our mothers than actually celebrating them.  It’s not unlike any other holiday in America in that its complete commercialization has stripped away so much of its genuine meaning, as well its history.  Mother’s Day is unique in its completely radical and totally feminist history, as much as it has been forgotten.

Mother’s Day began in America in 1870 when Julia Ward Howe wrote the Mother’s Day Proclamation. Written in response to the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, her proclamation called on women to use their position as mothers to influence society in fighting for an end to all wars. She called for women to stand up against the unjust violence of war through their roles as wife and mother, to protest the futility of their sons killing other mothers’ sons.

Howe wrote:

Arise, then, women of this day!

Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

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Say firmly: "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. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

[Read the remainder of Howe's quote here

The holiday caught on years later when a West Virginia women’s group led by Anna Reeves Jarvis began promoting it as a way to reunite families after the Civil War.  After Jarvis’ death, her daughter began a campaign for the creation of an official Mother’s Day in honor of peace. Devoting much of her life to the cause, it wasn’t until 1914 when Woodrow Wilson signed it into national observance in 1914.

The holiday flourished, along with the flower industry.  The business journal, the Florists Review, actually admitted to its desire to exploit the holiday. Jarvis was strongly opposed to every aspect of the holiday’s commercialization, arrested for protesting the sale of flowers, and petitioning to stop the creation of a Mother’s Day postage stamp. 

Today we are in multiple wars that continue to claim the lives of thousands of sons and daughters.  We are also experiencing a still-rising commercialization of nearly every aspect of life; the exploitation of every possible human event and emotion at the benefit of corporations.

Let’s take this Mother’s Day to excuse ourselves from the pressure to consume and remember its radical roots – that mothers, or rather all women, in fact, all people, have a stake in war and a responsibility as American citizens to protest the incredible violence that so many fellow citizens, here and abroad, must suffer through. 

The thousands of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the devastating impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on our veterans are just the beginning of the terrible repercussion of war.  As we saw last week an announcement of an extension of the military occupation of Afghanistan, let this mother’s day be a day after Julia Ward Howe’s own heart as we stand up and say no to 12 more years of war.

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