Jacobin - May 9, 2021

Mother’s Day is known to most Americans as a day when you should call your mom. And you probably should! But it also has a rich political history.

Mother’s Day began in 1858 when Ann Jarvis, an Appalachian housewife and mother to at least eleven children, organized “Mother’s Work Days” to improve sanitation, in a time when polluted water and disease-bearing pests were major causes of death in poor communities like hers. Jarvis was also a peace activist who organized Mother’s Day Work Clubs to care for soldiers on both sides of the Civil War.

When Ann Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, campaigned for an official Mother’s Day to honor her own mother’s lifelong activism. In 1914, her efforts succeeded: Congress passed a resolution making Mother’s Day official.

The holiday also has an antiwar history. In 1872, after the brutal Franco-Prussian war, Julia Ward Howe, a peace activist who wrote “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” established a day for mothers and antiwar protest. As my Jacobin colleague Branko Marketic wrote in 2019, her vision was an internationalist one, calling for a “general congress of women without limit of nationality” to “promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.” Howe organized protests and political conferences on the day, also calling it a “Women’s Peace Festival,” for many years.

For much of the twentieth century, the political ideals of Ann Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe were eclipsed as Mother’s Day became associated with treacly Hallmark commercialism. Anna Jarvis herself became disgusted with it by the early 1920s, even boycotting florists and picketing a confectioners’ convention to protest Mother’s Day price-gouging on flowers and sweets.

But in the 1950s and ’60s, Women Strike for Peace (WSP) held Mother’s Day actions around the country to protest the life-threatening nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The group had a respectable, middle-class image, often protesting while wearing white gloves and pushing strollers. The anti-Communist House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), however, took a great interest in WSP because of the many Communists involved in the group or closely associated with it. Indeed, a HUAC report on the group noted that, when communists use the word “peace,” it may sound wholesome like mom and apple pie, but a critique of capitalism is implied. (The committee was correct.) ...
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