Matthew Bowman: How Mother’s Day started and how we get it wrong today

The founders of the holiday, which was born out of a collective push for peace and a fight against poverty, and the LDS family proclamation rightly emphasize our responsibilities to one another.

For a holiday today so associated with celebration, it is a stark lesson that Mother’s Day began with pain.

In Boston in the early 1870s, Julia Ward Howe — the author of a poem called “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a volunteer nurse during the Civil War, a suffragist — began organizing what she called “Mother’s Day for Peace.” She was inspired by Ann Jarvis, a West Virginia activist who in previous years had organized “Mother’s Day clubs” in West Virginia as a means to raise money and attention toward the problem of poverty.

For Jarvis, Mother’s Day meant community gatherings in support of mothers in poverty, stricken with illness, in need of care. Howe organized Mother’s Day celebrations in Boston for years in the late 19th century, and, if she had her way, the day would mean large-scale, national, women-driven protests against militarism and for pacifism. “Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone bear and know the cost?” Howe asked.

Howe was invoking something the philosopher Sara Ruddick has called “maternal thinking.” To be clear, this is not the same thing as saying that men are inherently one thing and women inherently another. But Ruddick does argue that the labor and care that women invest in their children provide a different way of thinking about our society than our individualist, competitive world of the economy, politics and society — so often dominated by men — can offer. Mothers with children (and fathers, too) adopt what Ruddick calls a “vocabulary of connections,” a way of living that prioritizes “us,” not “I,” a sense that their lives are now most fundamentally built upon their responsibility for other people.

How societies are best built

If you’re a parent, you’re deeply aware of this. You think about everything from a trip to the movies to what job you might interview for in terms of your family as a unit. This can be challenging, and the world is not built for it. Anybody who has tried to take their children on a plane flight or into a restaurant knows that. For that matter, so does anybody who has wanted a child but worried about the impossibility of buying both food and diapers on a low salary, or parents who have a child with great medical needs but fragile insurance. But in the very disjuncture between the intensity of parents’ relationship with their child and the disappointing hurdles toward seeing that relationship flourish there opens an opportunity to conceive of what the world might be in new ways, and even, perhaps, to make a path there.

And that takes us back to Julia Ward Howe and Ann Jarvis, and what they wanted Mother’s Day to be. Jarvis was frustrated that mothers who needed help to keep their children safe and healthy and fed could not find it. Howe said that mothers particularly felt the damage and pain war inflicted. We might read that as partly an expression of Victorian sentimentalism about the home and family, partly Howe’s leveraging of that sentiment in her challenge against war, and partly, finally, maternal thinking. For Howe and Jarvis, mothers understood something about the human condition that many other Americans did not — that is, that humans are mutually interdependent, that we flourish best when we think about ourselves not as individuals first, but as people shaped by our communities and that our societies are best organized when they are premised upon our responsibilities to one another.

The family proclamation

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" was unveiled in September 1995.

This is, of course, what “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,issued by the top leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also teaches. The proclamation does not define human beings first as individuals dedicated to their own success. It defines individuals first as people in relationships; as sons, daughters, parents, children. It repeats the ideas central to maternal thinking; that we are all inextricably responsible for one another, and that that responsibility is divinely mandated.

This is why, then, it can be disappointing to experience Mother’s Day as translated through the dominant lenses through which we see our world: individualism, consumerism, commercialism. It is right and good to honor the sacrifices parents make for their children. But Howe and Jarvis and the Latter-day Saints’ family proclamation point us past such a tight focus on individual action to see how motherhood is genuinely something that must be done with other people. My wife and I needed both my parents and hers to get through the first month of our daughter’s life, and no doubt there are many reading this who are nodding their heads — and many more who did not have such help and regret it. That’s why Howe and Jarvis ask us to reimagine our society, and to picture the work of mothering as that of a set of hands surrounding and bearing up each individual woman, of a network of communities holding her and her child up, and finally to ask what we might do to make the work of mothering easier.

Congress acts

(Sasha Arutyunova for The New York Times) Mother's Day, writes historian Matthew Bowman, should e seen as "a set of hands surrounding and bearing up each individual woman."

We have Mother’s Day today because of Anna Jarvis, Ann’s daughter. After her mother’s death, she made the day her cause. She held ceremonies at her church in Grafton, W.Va., beginning in 1907. She convened a mass gathering in Philadelphia, having persuaded the wealthy to sponsor and support her. She wrote letters to lawmakers, and in 1914 succeeded: Congress made the second Sunday in May the holiday.

By the 1920s, she was angrily protesting chocolate companies, greeting card companies and florists, who, she declared, had drawn the holiday away from the inspiration for collective action she hoped it would be and turned it into simply another day to buy something. “Candy! You take a box to Mother — then eat most of it yourself,” she complained. By the 1940s, she was trying to persuade Congress to reverse their resolution.

Of course, the day is here to stay. But Jarvis’ warning should be, too.

Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”