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Thursday, February 22, 2024

This Mother’s Day, remember the holiday’s radical roots

Take action to honor strong women

Mother’s Day is this Sunday, and while flowers or a phone call are lovely ways of letting your mom know you love and appreciate her, it’s also worth remembering that Mother’s Day began as the project of radical social reformers and activists. Long before it came to be associated with brunch or expensive gifts, Mother’s Day was imagined by multiple women as an acknowledgement of the political power of mothers and the necessity of reorienting the nation toward the traditionally maternal values of caregiving, nurturing and building community.

The original vision of Mother’s Day was of a transnational celebration of peace and justice. The abolitionist, suffragist and social activist Julia Ward Howe’s 1870 “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World” calls for women to “Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with 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.” The other commonly cited root of Mother’s Day is reformer Ann Reeves Jarvis’ establishment of Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in the 1850s to combat poor sanitation and decrease infant mortality. Jarvis’ daughter Anna led the crusade to get Mother’s Day to be an officially recognized holiday, but already by 1920 she was disgusted by its commercialization and distance from her mother’s legacy.

The founders of Mother’s Day were the social reformers of the 19th century who saw firsthand that women, particularly mothers, were at the forefront of abolitionism and anti-war movements; that they were leading the charge for workers’ rights and early labor laws; that they were establishing schools and hospitals and the first women’s shelters. The women who envisioned a day of celebrating mothers had in mind a day to reflect on the enormous political and social power of women, especially of the women who raise us. Some of those reformers weren’t mothers themselves, but they recognized that you don’t have to birth a child to embrace the values and practices of mothering, like protecting the vulnerable, raising a strong community or demanding a better future –– values that seem more important to our survival with each passing day.

It’s high time that we reclaim that heritage and get back to a Mother’s Day that’s less about sending flowers and more about sending a message. If you really want to honor mothers and the other women in your life, call your congressional representative and demand that they support paid maternal (not to mention paternal!) leave. Or take a page out of the book of the Vietnam-era group Another Mother for Peace, which sent thousands of cards to Congress that read, “For my Mother’s Day gift this year I don’t want candy or flowers. I want an end to killing.” Make a donation in your mom’s name –– or in the name of a woman who’s important in your life –– to a charity like National Bail Out and its campaign to free black mothers from pretrial detention, or to organizations working to reunite separated families at the border. Send a girl to school. Join a women’s peace vigil. Become a Raging Granny.

Let’s stop treating Mother’s Day like another consumer holiday and get back to its radical social-activist roots. That would really make Mom happy.

Written by: The Editorial Board


  1. You have no idea what would make my mom happy. Get off your high horse and stop thinking you are in a position to speak for others.


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