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The Activist Roots of Mother's Day

Good news for jewelers, card retailers, restaurants, and flower shops around the country: a major sales boom is just around the corner! According to the National Restaurant Association, Mother’s Day is the most popular day for Americans to dine out; market research firm IBIS reports that Americans spend approximately $2.6 billion on flowers and $68 million on greeting cards; and nearly 8% of the U.S. jewelry industry’s 2008 revenue was generated by Mother’s Day. Clearly, the days of breakfast in bed are behind us.

Surely mothers—and caretakers, guardians, mentors, and other influential women— deserve a day in which they’re actively reminded of those who deeply love and appreciate them. They deserve to be celebrated. But the ways in which we’ve chosen to celebrate, with Hallmark cards and (unethically sourced) diamonds, are not only hyper-commercialized and impersonal, but a far cry from the values underlying the origins of the day.

Mother’s Day was pioneered by two peace activists, Julia Howe (author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic), and Anna Jarvis, in the early 20th century. Independently of one another, both women crusaded for a day to honor mothers and their dedication to peace. This original intention is best captured in Howe’s “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” drafted in 1870:

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly: "We will not have questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience. We women of one country will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."


From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says "Disarm! Disarm!

Ultimately, Howe's and Jarvis' vision came to fruition in 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother's Day a national holiday.

So what now? Am I saying that we abandon our Mother’s Day brunches for anti-war rallies? Not necessarily. But I would like to suggest that this Mother’s Day, we honor both the women in our lives and the original spirit of the day by focusing on the non-material, on taking responsibility for the welfare of our communities and our planet. As such, consider ways to personalize the way you choose to recognize someone this Mother’s Day, be it through a homemade card, time outdoors, a contribution to an organization she supports, or simply time spent together. This Mother’s Day, my mom and I plan to participate in a 5k walk for breast cancer research, visit our local farmer’s market (where I may pick up some Mother’s Day flowers after all), and have lunch with my grandmother. Something tells me she won’t be missing that diamond necklace.

Tags: Activism, Consumerism, Family, Gift, Mom, Mother, Social justice

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