In the United States, Mother’s Day falls on the second Sunday in May. This year (2020), the holiday is on May 10. This also happens to be the exact day when, in 1908, Anna Jarvis, editor and activist, created the first official Mother’s Day by holding a celebration in Philadelphia. She also, incidentally, started the tradition of giving flowers on the day by sending five hundred white carnations to the church in her home town to commemorate her own mother.
Although Jarvis is credited as the godmother of Mother’s Day in the United States, she was not the first one to come up with the idea. Jarvis’ own mother Ann Maria Jarvis, has that honor. From all accounts, Jarvis’ mother was the prototype Victorian woman, devoted to her children and her church. At the same time, she was also an activist of sorts, but, unlike the suffragists, she kept to her side of the separate spheres. That is, her work was confined mainly to areas where it was acceptable for women to instigate changes. Her activist work was nonetheless important, as it consisted of forming Mothers’ Day Club events, where the goal was to educate mothers on proper hygiene so as to curtail the massive infant death rates prevalent in the nineteenth century. It’s interesting to note Ann Maria conceived of Mother’s Day quite differently than her daughter. To Ann Maria, maternal responsibility was very much linked to community service, and her idea was to celebrate the role of motherhood in general. Her daughter, on the other hand, confined her 1908 celebration to her own mother, and her advocacy to make the day a national holiday was about men and women honoring their individual mothers — hence, we call it Mother’s Day and not Mothers’ Day. So Jarvis took Mother’s Day to a very personal level.
Putting this activism in the historical context in which it belongs, it might seem a little contradictory that the fight to get Mother’s Day declared a national holiday came during the first decade of the twentieth century. This was the era of Progressive reform where women were taking their lives outside the private sphere and fighting in the social and political arena for their rights and identities as individuals. So it might seem a little odd that Jarvis would lead a movement honoring women’s most traditional role inside the home. In addition, Jarvis was, for all intents and purposes, one of the New Women who held a career as an advertising editor and earned a college degree. But if we take a second look, it actually isn’t so incongruent. Suffragism was also about making women visible and respected on their own merits and for what they had to contribute to society. Mothers fit right into this category, so it makes sense that the fight to get mothers recognized and respected would find a lot of support.
Photo Credit: Anna Jarvis, founder of Mother’s Day in America. Probably taken around the turn of the century, judging by the hair style and clothes, but no additional information about the image. Uploaded 4 May 2017 by Jonas Duyvejonck: jonasduyvejonck/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
Jarvis campaigned with the government for Mother’s Day and won. In May of 1914 (only a few months before the outbreak of World War I), President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation that declared Mother’s Day a national holiday in the United States. By the 1920’s, Mother’s Day, like most American holidays, had become a very profitable one, specifically for florists and candy makers. Jarvis was disillusioned by this commercialization of Mother’s Day toward the end of her life, and she spent much of her later years trying to gain the recognition she and her mother deserved for being the godmothers of the holiday. One of the beautiful things about history is that, while innovators may not be appreciated during their own lifetime, we can look back and give them the appreciation they deserve decades, even centuries, later.
Mothers play a huge role in my fiction. Some of them are martyrs (like Mary’s mother in the short story “Mother of Mischief,” which is part of my collection of post-war stories, Lessons From My Mother’s Life), while others are hard-bitten and manipulative (like Joan’s mother in the story “Soul Destinations,” also part of the Lessons collection). In my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, Larissa, the Alderdice family matriarch, is a complex mother. Note quite the sort of mother whom you would want to tuck you in at night, she nevertheless has an admirable strength and survival that runs throughout the series.