Honoring the Progressive History of Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day wasn’t always a “Hallmark Holiday.” In fact, the founder of Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis, hated the commercialization of what had begun as a progressive holiday focused on action, activism, and personal expression.

Anna Jarvis campaigned to make Mother’s Day a national holiday in honor of her mother, Ann Jarvis. Ann Jarvis was a peace activist during the Civil War who spent time caring for the wounded soldiers regardless of which side they fought on.  After the civil war, Ann created Mother’s Day Work Clubs in order to address public health issues across the United States.

Ann Jarvis wasn’t the only one working to organize mothers. In 1872 Julia Ward Howe called for all women to join together in support of disarmament, asking for the establishment of a “Mother’s Day for Peace.” She sought to organize pacifist mothers across the country against war in general, but specifically the American Indian Wars.

When her mother died in 1905, Anna Jarvis began a campaign to set aside a day for all families to honor their mother because she felt that a mother is “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world.” Congress initially rejected the idea, joking that to proclaim a Mother’s Day, they would also have to proclaim a “Mother-in-law’s Day.”

Nevertheless, Anna persisted, and by 1911, every state in the U.S. observed the holiday. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation declaring that Mother’s Day, the second Sunday in May, is a national holiday to honor mothers.

Shortly after, Hallmark Cards and many other companies seized on the holiday as a money-making opportunity, something that Anna Jarvis greatly resented. She felt that sentiments should be expressed either in person or through handmade efforts, rather than store-bought cards and gifts. She even threatened to sue companies involved in the commercialization of the holiday.

Today, Americans spend as much as $25 billion celebrating Mother’s Day. More flowers are purchased for the day than any other holiday except Christmas/Hanukkah, and as much as $5.2 billion will be spent on jewelry.

But perhaps it’s time to remember the progressive roots of Mother’s Day: activism, protest, action, and personal expression of sentiment.

Jenn Bentley is a writer and editor originally from Cadiz, Kentucky. Her writing has been featured in publications such as The Examiner, The High Tech Society, FansShare, Yahoo News, and others. When she’s not writing or editing, Jenn spends her time raising money for Extra Life and advocating for autism awareness.

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