Mother's Day the Old Way: A peace holiday

Quick: what are the first five words that come to mind when you hear Mother’s Day? Hallmark? Brunch? Breakfast-in-bed? Flowers? Chocolate?

The originators would be sorry to hear that. It seems that Mother’s Day was founded in two steps, 37 years apart. In 1870, Julia Ward Howe (author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1862) published a plea for women of all nations to join to eradicate war. As the proclamation quoted below reveals, she drew the heart of her argument from the feelings of the women of the day, resisting their husbands’ history of aggression, and invoking the nurture of mothers for their sons to override the call to violent duty. It made sense to her that women of all countries could unite in that intention. She proposed a Mother’s Peace Day.

Later on, Mother’s Day’s second wave was started by Anna Jarvis in 1907 whose campaign to make Mother’s Day a holiday was geared to honoring mothers rather than pacifism. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made it official, which led us to our current emphasis. But back to Howe’s proclamation, full of stirring phrases (like “reeking with carnage”):

Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, 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 of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, disarm! The sword is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after his own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

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.


This read leads to irresistible questions. What if throughout history women had been the dominant, or at least equal, force in running countries, handling conflicts, deciding priorities? Would we have made the same hash of it that the men did?

What if women in oppressive societies that yield terrorism today had had centuries of freedom to participate in public life, choose their own situations, solve their own problems? Would we be locked in dangerous hatred and suspicion that we are now?

Regarding home and family, if women everywhere had been able to choose whether and how many children to have, to leave dangerous marriages, to share the reins, how would that have impacted overpopulation and poverty? Would we have been wiser than to carve up countries to our convenience, because we were able to think about other people’s children as well as our own?

If Howe’s view had prevailed, the five words might be more like peace, alliance, settlement, patience, charity.


Here’s a thoroughly different take on Mother’s Day, from last year.


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