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The Curious History of Mother's Day

excerpted from "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap" by Stephanie Coontz (contributed by "Shifter the practical Cat")

The extent to which the right-wing analysis has permeated our understanding of women's changing roles is illustrated in the ritual lamentations we hear each year about the "debasement of Mother's Day." Most people believe that Mother's Day was originally a time for an intensely personal celebration of women's private roles and nuclear family relationships. In "the old days," we brought mom breakfast in bed to acknowledge all the meals she had made for us. We picked her a bouquet of fresh flowers to symbolize her personal, unpaid services to her family. "Traditional" Mother's Day images, whether on the front of greeting cards or in the back of our minds, are always set in the kitchen or at a child's bedside, emphasizing mother's devotion to her own family and ignoring her broader kin networks, social ties, and political concerns. But as domestic work has been devalued and formerly private arenas of life drawn into the market, the story goes, the personal element in this celebration has been lost. Mother's Day has become just another occasion for making money -- the busiest day of the year for American restaurants and telephone companies, the best single week of the year for florists. So every May, between the ads for "all-you-can-eat" Mother's Day buffets, we hear a chorus of pleas for Americans to rediscover "the true meaning of Mother's Day." Last year, for example, my son carried home from school (along with three dinner coupons from local fast-food restaurants) a handout urging children to think of some "homemade" gift or service to express their appreciation for their mothers' "special" love. It was a nice sentiment, and I was delighted to receive the fantasy book my child pulled from his personal library and wrapped in a hand-drawn heart -- but the historian in me was a little bemused. The fact is that Mother's Day originated to celebrate the organized activities of women *outside* the home. It became trivialized and commercialized only after it became confined to "special" nuclear family relations. The people who inspired Mother's Day had quite a different idea about what made mothers special. They believed that motherhood was a *political* force. They wished to celebrate mothers' social roles as community organizers, honoring women who acted on behalf of the entire future generation rather than simply putting their own children first. The first proposal of a day for mothers came from Anna Reeves Jarvis, who in 1858 organized Mothers' work Days in West Virginia to improve sanitation in the Appalachian Mountains. During the Civil War, her group provided medical services for soldiers and civilians on both sides of the conflict. After the war, Jarvis led a campaign to get the former combatants to lay aside their animosities and forge new social and political alliances. The other nineteenth-century precursor of Mother's Day began in Boston in 1872, when poet and philanthropist Julia Ward Howe proposed an annual Mothers' Day for Peace, to be held every June 2:

Arise then, women of this day!... Say firmly: "Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage... 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."

Howe's Mothers' Day was celebrated widely in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and other Eastern states until the turn of the century. Most of these ceremonies and proposals, significantly, were couched in the plural, not the singular, mode: Mothers' Day was originally a vehicle for organized socail and political action by all mothers, not for celebrating the private services of one's own particular mother. When Anna Reeves Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter, also named Anna Jarvis, began a letter-writing campaign to have a special day set aside for mothers. But by this period, there was already considerable pressure to sever the personal meaning of motherhood from its earlier political associations. The mobilization of women as community organizers was the last thing on the minds of the prominent merchants, racist politicians, and antisuffragist activists who, sometimes to Jarvis's dismay, quickly jumped on the bandwagon. In fact, 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. Its bond with social reform movements broken, Mother's Day immediately drifted into the orbit of the marketing industry. The young Jarvis had proposed that inexpensive carnations be worn to honor one's mother. Outraged when the flowers began to sell for a dollar apiece, she attacked the florists as "profiteers" and began a campaign to protect Mother's Day from such exploitation. In 1923, she managed to get a political and commercial celebration of Mother's Day cancelled in New York (on grounds, ironically, of infringement of copyright), but this was her last
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victory. Jarvis spent the rest of her life trying to regain control of the day, becoming more and more paranoid about those who "would undermine [Mother's Day] with their greed." She was eventually committed to a sanitarium, where she died in 1948.

Coontz also notes: "For all its repressiveness, the early-nineteenth-century definition of woman's sphere had given her moral responsibility beyond the household, a duty that shaded easily into social activism. Women who participated in antislavery agitation, temperance, and welfare reform saw this work as essentially maternal in nature. Thus the earliest proponents of honoring motherhood were people allied with such social reform movements."

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