On the 100th Anniversary of Mother’s Day, Remembering its Feminist, Non-Commercial Origins

Mother’s Day turns 100 this year. Although it’s become one of the most commercialized U.S. holidays, resulting in a projected 20 billion in spending and trailing only Christmas and Valentine’s Day in greeting card sales, Mother’s Day’s origins are far more humble and idealistic.

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially proclaimed the second Sunday in May Mother’s Day. This was the result of the campaigning and hard work of a group of strong women. It began in the 1850s in West Virginia, with Mother’s Day work clubs organized by Ann Reeves Jarvis to try and lower infant mortality by addressing public health issues and improving sanitary conditions. In the 1860s, these organized women’s groups also cared for wounded soldiers from both sides during the Civil War.

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially proclaimed the second Sunday in May Mother’s Day. This was the result of the campaigning and hard work of a group of strong women.

After the war, Jarvis and other women organized Mother’s Friendship Day picnics to promote peace and unite the two sides. In 1870, Boston poet and suffragette Julia Ward Howe (best known as the composer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”) issued a “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” urging women to take an active political role in promoting peace.

Anna Jarvis, credited with founding Mother's Day in the U.S.

Anna Jarvis, credited with founding Mother’s Day in the U.S.

When Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, inspired by her mother’s activism and fight for female empowerment, began petitioning for a national holiday in celebration of mothers. Three years later, the younger Jarvis organized what would become the first (unofficial) Mother’s Day celebration in a church (now renamed the International Mother’s Day Shrine) in West Virginia. Six years after that, the holiday became official.

Jarvis soon became disillusioned by the commercialization of Mother’s Day, and spent the remainder of her life organizing boycotts and protests trying to fight it. She even publicly attacked the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, for using the holiday as an opportunity for charity fundraising. The holiday Jarvis had worked so hard to establish was supposed to be about honoring and celebrating our mothers, not profit.

The holiday Jarvis had worked so hard to establish was supposed to be about honoring and celebrating our mothers, not profit.

Another interesting thing to note is that Jarvis always intended this holiday to be a celebration of the only mother in your life, stressing the singular Mother’s Day (not the plural Mothers’ Day). It wasn’t intended to celebrate all mothers, but — as a son or daughter — to celebrate the one mother who brought you into this world. This custom lives on in some countries. In my native Sweden, for example, it’s rare to wish any stranger on the street (or friend, for that matter) a “Happy Mother’s Day” just because she happens to be a woman who has at some point given birth to a child. In the U.S., we do this constantly. Is it a way of expanding the holiday to be a more inclusive celebration or are we diluting the message of appreciation and love at the expense of our own mothers? Food for thought.

Regardless of how you choose to celebrate your mother this Sunday, do something more thoughtful than simply buying a card and flowers. Cook her a meal, take her out and do something fun together, or simply follow Anna Jarvis’ original suggestion and write your mother a letter telling her just how much she means to you.

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About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
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