The Radical History of Mother’s Day

The average American will spend $196.47 on Sunday; nationwide, we’ll drop a whopping $24.95 billion this weekend. Every mother deserves to be showered with gifts, love and affection—but the radical history of Mother’s Day is being lost in its corporatization.

“We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs,” abolitionist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe wrote in her “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World,” later deemed the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” in 1870. “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.'”

Ward Howe had just lived through the Civil War, the bloodiest battle America ever fought. Nearly as many U.S. men died in captivity during the Civil War as were killed in the Vietnam War, not to mention the millions who lived and died in enslavement. A total of 750,000 people died during the Civil War—2.5 percent of the population at the time. If that proportion of Americans died today, that number would be 8 million.

Women’s political involvement during the Reconstruction era was exceedingly limited—this was still five decades before Congress passed the 19th Amendment. Ward Howe rebelled against Americans who believed that politics were inherently evil and would corrupt women’s natural “moral and spiritual authority,” and that the most civil-minded duty was to raise patriotic and moral sons. Without the power of the vote, Ward Howe harnessed the power of the pen and wrote one of the most moving and evocative proclamations on the evils and harm of war.

Over two centuries later, her words still ring true.

Women of Ward Howe’s time realized that all of the work, time and love that they poured into raising the next generation was for naught. They were raising their sons for slaughter. “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them,” she wrote, “of charity, mercy and patience.”

Ward Howe ends her poem with a solution: Create a congress of women to promote peace and end the carnage. She welcomes women from all nationalities to come and ask all their questions, promote alliances and achieve lasting peace.

These sentiments embody modern efforts to advance a women, peace and security agenda worldwide. Unfortunately, Ward Howe’s call for a Mother’s Day for Peace seemed to fall on deaf ears during her own time.

Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation is now preserved in the Library of Congress.

Instead, in 1908, Anna Jarvis began honoring her mother after her death by initiating what we now know as Mother’s Day. The celebrations in West Virginia spread across the country. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday in May a national holiday. It didn’t take long for businesses to capitalize on the energy, either—but while Jarvis may have popularized Mother’s Day, she excoriated it for becoming a consumer holiday.

“WHAT WILL YOU DO to rout charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites,” Jarvis wrote in a 1920 press release, “that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations?” In 1925, she was arrested for disturbing the peace at a convention that sold carnations in the name of Mother’s Day.

As the years went by, business profiting from Mother’s Day boomed—and peace activism resurged in response to the many wars in the 20th century.

Though Women Strike for Peace (WSP), a peace activist organization in the 1960s, was largely unaware of Ward Howe, they embodied the spirit of her Mother’s Day Proclamation perfectly. Concerned mothers protested the Vietnam War and raised awareness of the radiation from above-ground nuclear weapons testing that was poisoning their children. 50,000 women walked out of their homes and workplaces across the country to stand up against the war machine. Together, they popularized the slogan “End the Arms Race, Not the Human Race.” WSP was so influential that President Kennedy credited their activism in his decision to sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which halted above-ground nuclear testing.

90 years after Ward Howe’s proclamation, women protesting the activities of the U.S. government were still seen as radical. In 1962, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated WSP’s activism, fearing that communism had spread to the nation’s mothers.

“I don’t know, sir, why I am here,” activist Blanche Posner told the men in Congress, “but I do know why you are here: because you don’t understand the nature of the movement. This movement was motivated by mothers’ love for children. When they were putting their breakfast on the table they saw not only Wheaties and milk, but they also saw strontium-90 and iodine-131. They feared for the life of their children. This is the only motivation.”

Today, we’re still fighting to actualize the vision for peace that united Ward Howe and WSP. Over half of discretionary spending every year goes to the military and nuclear weapons. In 2018, we spent $713 billion on the military—a number that doesn’t even include Veterans’ care or building nuclear weapons.

We could have provided millions of teachers with raises, expanded Medicare and Medicaid, invested in wind and solar energy, saved the lives of our service men and women as well as civilians abroad—but we didn’t. Our national leaders still value war and carnage over diplomacy and healthy communities.

Cards, chocolates and even quality time with our moms will not save the Mothers of the world from losing their children to senseless wars and local acts of violence. But we can honor the legacy of the radical women who have come before us by making conversations about a more peaceful world part of our celebrations this Mother’s Day.

About and

Corey Greer is the Communications Director at Women's Action for New Directions, a nonprofit organization devoted to building women's political power to advocate for security and peace with justice. She was previously on the Gender Equality team at the United Nations Development Program in Istanbul and the Gender, Women and Democracy team at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.
Samantha Blake is the Women Legislators’ Lobby Program Manager at Women’s Action for New Directions.