Friday, May 08, 2009

The History of Mother's Day

According to the advertisements, for Mother's Day we buy mum slippers, or flowers, or lunch, or a new kitchen appliance. The way Mother's Day is celebrated now you would think it was created by Hallmark. It wasn't.

There is currently a movement to reclaim the original intention of Mother's Day.

The original Mothers' Day was a Mothers' Peace Day in 1873, a protest against the American Civil War, organised by Julia Ward Howe. She wrote a Mothers' Day Proclamation in 1870.

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all woman who have hearts!...
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience...
And up from the bosom of a devestated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says 'Disarm! Disarm!'

In 1858 Ann Jarvis, a young homemaker of West Virginia, organised the first Mothers' Work Days to improve sanitation and stop disease. She organised women on both sides during the Civil War. Her daughter, Anna Jarvis, continued her work by campaigning for a memorial day for mothers. In 1907 at her mother's memorial service she handed out 500 white carnations, her mother's favourite flower. The first Mothers' Day service was held at the St. Andrew's Episcopal Church on May 10, 1908. On May 8, 1914, the US Congress passed a law designating the second Sunday in May to be Mother's Day. Woodrow Wilson declared that American citizens show the flag to honour mothers whose sons had died in war.

Later, when Anna Jarvis saw how commercialised the day had become, she tried to have it cancelled. She said, "A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment!" The apostrophe was moved to make it a celebration for individual mothers rather than recognising the social good mothers can do collectively.

The history of maternal activism has largely been fogotten. Mother's Day seems to be good time to remember.

It was mothers who, along with other women, initially campaigned for women's right to vote, and to an education, and for equal pay.

In Australia Louisa Lawson, mother of Henry, wrote a monthly journal, The Dawn, from 1888 to 1895, advocating women's rights and actively fighting for suffrage, education, workers rights and social reform. Joan Kirner is another example. She became a politician after campaigning for smaller class sizes at her children's public school and went on to became first woman Premier of Victoria. There are many more examples of mothers who have worked for broader causes than their own families' wellbeing, but you have to look for them. Information about these women isn't handed out as a new mum leaves the hospital with her baby as an example of the kind of mother's club you are now qualified to join.

In the US mothers' organisations are claiming Mother's Day as a day of action. The group MOTHERS, standing for Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights, has released a list of the 'Top 10 Mother's Day Gifts We REALLY Want', which includes paid sick leave; safe, affordable, accessible child care; part time jobs with proportionate pay and benefits; unpaid family caregiving valued as productive work by society; a maternal voice in public policies and practices and a Mothers' Centre in every community. Another action group, Mothers Acting Up, is organising a day in support of Stand for the World's Children!, a grassroots campaign to lobby government to protect vulnerable children around the world. In Canada there is a campaign run by Inter Pares (meaning among equals) to Take Back the Day, where they ask people to support women working for justice and peace all over the world.

It has become the fashion to mother intensively, focussing on doing all we can to give our own children every opportunity and material benefit. Perhaps the times are changing to a more extensive form of mothering, where we acknowledge our global interconnectedness and try to not only prepare our children for the world, but prepare the world for our children and all children.

All holidays are amalgamations of different festivals, (the ancient Greeks and Romans also had a day on which to celebrate mothers), and these keep evolving. Just as we work out how best to celebrate Easter or Christmas in accordance with our values and beliefs, it is worth considerng how we want to celebrate Mother's Day.

There might come a time when we move the apostrophe back. Mother's Day doesn't have to be about fluffy slippers.

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