The Anti-War Roots of Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day’s roots in the United States can be traced back to the 19th century abolitionist, suffragist and peace activist Julia Ward Howe, famous as the writer of the Union army song the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  On June 2nd, 1972 Howe led a women’s anti-war demonstration in New York City where she issued her Mother’s Day Proclamation, calling for disarmament and peace.

Arise, then, women of this day!

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

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.”

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

“Mother’s Day” was observed in Boston for the next ten years under Howe’s guidance.

A protest cartoon by pacficist Robert Minor against "patriotic motherhood." The cartoon is dedicated to former president Theodore Roosevelt an active campaigner for U.S. preparedness for war. Roosevelt claimed that it is the woman's patriotic duty to "bear at least three children." Failure to do so, according to Roosevelt, would be treasonous.

Mother’s Day would not be declared a nationally recognized holiday until Woodrow Wilson signed a bill transforming the traditional pacifist holiday into a nationalistic celebration of the Mother as the “greatest source of the country’s strength and inspiration.”  At the time there was a massive public relations campaign to build support for American intervention in World War I and to sell the American mother on the notion of “patriotic motherhood” in which the Wilson administration was an active participant. The role of the patriotic mother was to bear male children and raise them to be strong soldiers for America’s army.  So one could easily interpret the “strength” the resolution speaks of as being militaristic.

After it’s declaration as a national holiday one the greatest campaigners for the recognition of Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis, who campaigned for the day following the death of her mother who was an outspoken and energetic peace activist, became a fervent opponent of the holiday due to its commercialization.  She actively campaigned against the holiday, attacking  florists who raised the price of flowers on Mother’s Day as “profiteers.”  In 1923 at a Mother’s Day convention she was arrested for disturbing the peace.  In an interview she declared that she “wanted a day of sentiment, not profit.”

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