The War Against Mothers Day

Tags: The Greeting Card Octopus, Net Neutrality Moms, the difference an apostrophe makes.

In North America, at least, a lot of the spring holidays seem like also-rans: Heritage Day, Family Day, Administrative Professionals Day… They’re like the movies that come out in Spring, neither summer blockbusters like the 1st or 4th of July, nor the prestige offerings of Winter and Fall. They’re the Hallmark holidays. We celebrate them, if at all, with the dim sense we’ve been had by the Greeting Card Octopus or the Florists’ Trust.

Mother’s Day is different, of course. I’ve never really heard anyone complain about Mother’s Day. And I’d never heard anything about its melodramatic history or its progressive roots until I read Stephanie Coontz’ 1992 book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. (It’s possible I’m just out of the loop, though: I see the story is all over the internets today.)

“Mother’s Day originated to celebrate the organized activities of women outside the home,” Coontz writes. “The people who inspired Mother’s Day … believed that motherhood was a political force. They wished to celebrate mothers’ social roles as community organizers.” The holiday became “trivialized and commercialized,” she says, only after it was reoriented to celebrate private family relations.

The first American proponent of a day for mothers was Anna Reeves Jarvis, who organized Mothers’ Work Days in West Virginia in the 1850s to improve sanitation in rural Appalachian communities. During the Civil War, Jarvis’ mothers groups provided medical services for soldiers and civilians on both sides of the conflict. Another nineteenth-century precursor of the day for mothers was Julia Ward Howe’s Mothers’ Day for Peace, established in Boston in the wake of the Civil War.

Note the placement of those apostrophes. Jarvis and Howe organized Mothers’ Days, in the plural, as vehicles for organized social and political activity by mothers, not the private celebration of a mother’s services within the home. In the migration of the apostrophe one letter to the left–from Mothers’ Day to Mother’s Day–Coontz sees a declension both grammatical and political. After Anna Reeves Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter, also named Anna Jarvis, began lobbying for a special day for mothers. The idea caught on, but not in the way Jarvis had hoped:

The adoption of Mother’s Day by the 63rd Congress on May 8, 1914 represented a reversal of everything the nineteenth century mothers’ days had stood for. The speeches proclaiming Mother’s Day in 1914 linked it to celebration of home life and privacy; they repudiated women’s social role beyond the household. One antisuffragist leader inverted the original intent entirely when she used the new Mother’s Day as an occasion to ask rhetorically: If a woman becomes “a mother to the Municipality, who is going to mother us?” Politicians found that the day provided as many opportunities for self-promotion as did the Fourth of July. Merchants hung testimonials to their own mothers above the wares they hoped to convince customers to buy for other mothers. A day that had once been linked to controversial causes was reduced to an occasion for platitudes and sales pitches.

Here’s where the melodrama comes in. The younger Jarvis came to be horrified by what she had wrought. She attacked florists selling Mother’s Day carnations as “profiteers,” and railed against commercial greeting cards as a “poor excuses for the letter you are too lazy to write.” In 1923, she tried to prevent a political and commercial celebration of Mother’s Day by filing suit (against New York Governor Al Smith, among others) for copyright infringement. When she tried to prevent the sale of flowers at a Mother’s Day festival, she was arrested for disturbing the peace. Jarvis spent the rest of her life (and her family inheritance) campaigning against the holiday, becoming more and more paranoid about those who “would undermine [Mothers’ Day] with their greed.” The final five-hanky Stella Dallas touch? Anna Jarvis was eventually committed to a sanitarium, where she died, blind and penniless, in 1948.

The history of Mother’s Day is, for Coontz, “a microcosm of the simultaneous sentimentalization and commercialization of private life.” I’ve got no right to criticize the sentimentalization of family life, at least not this year, as Ralph Luker has pointed out. And railing against commercialization sometimes seems like railing against the tide. But maybe we can still find a lesson in the story of Anna Jarvis’ moving apostrophe.

Today, Mother’s Day seems the least political of holidays. The political clout of modern mothers does get a nod in our discussions of Soccer Moms and Security Moms, Peace Moms and Earth Moms. (Me, I’m rooting for the appearance of Net Neutrality Moms.) It’s tempting to dismiss these as focus groups rather than movements–marketing labels in an era where political ideas are not something mothers or other citizens generate but rather consume. But that is reductive. And if it is our collective sentimentality about motherhood gives a figure like Cindy Sheehan such political resonance, is that such a bad thing? Maybe it’s possible to reimagine, or remember, Mothers’ Day as a holiday that simultaneously honors our private relationships and celebrates the political engagement of mothers and others with society.

Hi Mom. Happy Mothers’ Day!

Crossposted to Cliopatria.


  1. Thank you, dear. Does this mean I have to go out and do something socially useful? Or can I still hope for breakfast in bed? (Also, tell that Luker boy that your response to parenthood arises from the deepest wellsprings of the human experience, that saccharin as an adjective has an e, and that if he calls you names again, I’m going to speak to his mother.) Love, Mom

  2. Dear Ms. MacDougall, I am probably twice your age and still haven’t learned to spell. If Rob is any example of it, you’ve already done plenty that is socially useful. Let me know if he fails to bring you breakfast in bed. I fixed a Southern brunch for my wife yesterday. We had baked ham, spinach omlettes, hominey, English muffins with butter and jam, and coffee. Not bad for an antiquated historian, wouldn’t you say?

  3. Oh, very well then, Robbie is allowed to come out and play after all.

  4. In the hope that it’s not misread as spam, I’ll plug this recent Mother’s Day themed speech by Medea Benjamin in the town I grew up near (and am headed for in a rusty yellow van at o-eight-hundred) – Bangor, Maine. I certainly don’t mean to hijack your post, but I thought it was right up the alley of what you were discussing. In any event, cheers to all moms, whether they’re womanning the pantries or the picket lines, the breast pumps or the barricades. Peace.

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