The Radical Origins of Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day was originally started as an anti-war movement in the 1800s.

In the years prior to the Civil War, public healthcare for women and children, especially pre and postnatal care, was severely lacking across the United States. There was also a great divide in the country due to opposing social sentiments and people who were once neighbors were now at odds. Enter Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, a wife and mother living in the area that is now West Virginia. Jarvis, like many other women in the 1850s, would give birth to a total of twelve children and would only watch four of them grow to adulthood as a result of deadly disease.

Concern for the health and wellbeing of children was paramount for mothers like Jarvis and she was impelled to organize several “Mothers Day Work Clubs” as a way for mothers to support each other and fight poor health and sanitation conditions that contributed to the high mortality rate of children. Mothers Day Work Clubs provided medicine for the poor and nursing care for the sick. When the Civil War broke out, Mother Jarvis called on her Mothers Clubs to pledge friendship and goodwill to all. Jarvis worked tirelessly as a peacemaker and taught women that they should not fall victim to conflict and hate bred by the war. Members of these clubs were empowered by Jarvis’ suggestion of peace and they nursed both Union and Confederate soldiers saving many lives.

After the war, Jarvis continued her crusade for unity and in 1868 created and organized Mothers Friendship Day to bring together families divided by social conflict. Mother Jarvis believed by appealing to the love and respect people feel for their mothers would allow reconnection and healing for the people of the nation. The event was well attended by citizens of both sides and by the conclusion of the day many people were seen in a tearful embrace. Ann Jarvis’ significant purpose, “To make us better children by getting closer to the hearts of our good mothers. To brighten the lives of good mothers.”  

Starting in 1872 Julia Ward Howe, best known for writing Battle Hymn of the Republic, and other anti-war activists promoted a Mothers’ Peace Day to promote unity after the horrors of the Civil War. Howe called for women to gather once a year to promote peace by singing songs, listing to sermons, and present essays to each other. Howe wrote the Mother’s Day Proclamation which called for women to work together in the interests of global peace.

“In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women, without limit of nationality, may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient, and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”

The first modern version of Mother’s day was held on May 10th in 1908 when Anna Jarvis, daughter of Ann Jarvis, held a memorial for her mother at St Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia which now home to the International Mother’s Day Shrine. Anna Jarvis wanted to honor her mother by continuing the work she started and to set aside a day to honor all mothers because she believed a mother is “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world”.

Help the Women’s Museum of California tell more hidden histories of women. When you donate to the Women’s Museum you support future women’s history exhibits and educational programs that encourage children to pursue their dreams and be whatever they want when they grow up. And while our message to boys and girls is the same, the opportunity to learn about women in our history is not. Women’s achievements in science, scholarship, literature, and other spheres are often overshadowed by the achievements of men. 

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