Mothers In Arms

New York Times, May 10, 1992
By Stephanie Coontz

Hilo, Hawaii -- Criticism of the corruption of Mothers Day has become as much a cliché as the holiday itself. Most people believe that Mother's Day started out as a private celebration of women's family roles and relations. We took Mom breakfast in bed to thank her for all the meals she made us. We picked her a bouquet of flowers to symbolize her personal, unpaid services. We tried to fix in our memory those precious moments of her knitting sweaters or sitting at our bedside, all the while focusing on her devotion to her family and ignoring her broader social ties, interests and political concerns.

Today, many complain, the personal element in this celebration has been lost. Mother's Day is just another occasion to make money. It is the busiest day of the year for restaurants, and the week that precedes it is the single-best for florists. The real meaning of Mother's Day is gone.

Such lamentation about the holiday's degradation reflect a misunderstanding of its history. It was the education of Mother's Day to sentimentalism and private family relations that made it so vulnerable to commercial exploitation.

The 19th century forerunners of our modern holiday were called mothers' days, not Mother's Day. The plural is significant: They celebrated the extension of women's moral concerns beyond the home. They commemorated mothers' civic roles and services to the nation, not their private roles and personal services to the family. The women who organized the first mothers' days believed motherhood was a political force that should be mobilized on behalf of the entire community, not merely an expression of a fundamental instinct that led them to lavish all their time and attention on their children.

The earliest call for a mothers' day came from Anna Reeves Jarvis, a community activist, who in 1858 organized Mothers' Work Days in West Virginia to improve sanitation in Appalachian communities. During the Civil War, the women she mobilized cared for the wounded on both sides and, after the war's end, arranged meetings to persuade the men to lay aside their enmities.

The holiday's other precursor began in Boston in 1872, when Julia Ward Howe, author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," proposed an annual Mothers' Day for Peace. This was celebrated on June 2 in most Northeastern cities for the next 30 years.

The message that Mrs. Howe's mothers sent to the Government was a far cry from today's syrupy platitudes: "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."

The connection of motherhood to movements for peace and social justice made particular sense in the 19th century. Despite its repressiveness, the Victorian image of motherhood gave women moral responsibility beyond the household, a duty that for many translated easily into social activism. Women played a leading role in anti-slavery agitation, temperance movements, consumer protection drives and the construction of America's social welfare system. They believed their role as mothers made them especially suited for political and social activities.

After the turn of the century, however, women's expanding political and economic activities beyond the home collided with the growth of a consumer economy. While women won important reforms in the public sphere, their maternal and moral responsibilities were privatized and linked to their role as "purchasing agent" for the family. Sentimentalization of motherhood seemed to go hand in hand with its trivialization.

This was the context in which Anna Jarvis's daughter, also named Anna Jarvis, began a letter-writing campaign to honor her own mother by getting a special day set aside for all mothers. Politicians and businessmen who had opposed l9th century women's reforms embraced an individualistic Mother's Day that could be, as Florists' Review, the industry's trade magazine, put it, "exploited."

The adoption of Mother's Day by Congress on May 8, 1914, represented a reversal of everything the 19th century mothers' days had stood for. Speeches proclaiming the occasion repudiated women's social and political roles, except to emphasize the importance of mothers in teaching their children to obey the state. One antisuffrage leader inverted the original intent of mothers' day entirely when she asked rhetorically: If a woman becomes "a mother to the Municipality, who is going to mother us?"

Its bond with social reform snapped, Mother's Day drifted into the orbit of the marketing industry. Outraged when florist "profiteers" began selling carnations for $1, the younger Anna Jarvis set about combating the commercialization of the day she had worked so hard to establish. Within a few years; however, Florists' Review was able to announce that "Miss Jarvis was completely squelched." For her part, Anna Jarvis became more and more obsessed with exposing those who would undermine Mother's Day with their greed." She was eventually committed to a sanitarium, where she died in 1948, just before the real takeoff of Mother's Day commercialization in the 1950's.

Women in the 1990's have even more reason than Anna Jarvis to resent those who celebrate Mother's Day by offering store-bought sentiments as a substitute for supporting the basic needs of mother's and children. The Government devotes a smaller proportion of its resources to financing children's education than any other major democracy. A majority of American mothers now work for pay, but they still face a second shift at home and lack adequate parental leave policies or childcare facilities. Poor American mothers, have lower incomes relative to the rest of the population, less assistance with job placement and childcare and less medical coverage than in any other advanced industrial nation.

But this disrespect for mothers will not be solved by forgoing the Mother's Day all-you-can-eat buffets and retreating even further into the nuclear family. Such a move would only revive the most stultifying, repressive aspects of 19th century domesticity while jettisoning the elements that made it bearable: motherhood's connection to larger social and political ideals of peace and justice.

Mother's Day belongs neither in the shopping mall nor the kitchen, but in the streets and community action groups where it originated.

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