Anti-war roots of Mother’s Day: forgotten history

The joke used to be that it was a holiday created by the greeting card industry, but does anyone send greeting cards anymore in this digital age—even on Mother’s Day? You’d never know that the holiday actually has subversive anti-war roots if it weren’t for periodic efforts by pacifists to rescue this inconvenient historical fact from oblivion. The latest such effort is an editorial on the lefty website Nation of Change, entitled “The Radical Roots of Mother’s Day.” We give them creds for serving the cause of historical memory—but, alas, we have the odious duty of calling them out on their own insidious revisionism, which sheds light on the weakness of a pure pacifist position. Here’s the critical chunk of the text:

Mother’s Day began in America in 1870 when Julia Ward Howe wrote the Mother’s Day Proclamation. Written in response to the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, her proclamation called on women to use their position as mothers to influence society in fighting for an end to all wars. She called for women to stand up against the unjust violence of war through their roles as wife and mother, to protest the futility of their sons killing other mothers’ sons.

Howe wrote:

Arise, then, women of this day!

Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, Our husbands will 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, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

[Read the remainder of Howe’s quote here]

The holiday caught on years later when a West Virginia women’s group led by Anna Reeves Jarvis began promoting it as a way to reunite families after the Civil War. After Jarvis’ death, her daughter began a campaign for the creation of an official Mother’s Day in honor of peace. Devoting much of her life to the cause, it wasn’t until 1914 when Woodrow Wilson signed it into national observance in 1914.

The holiday flourished, along with the flower industry. The business journal, the Florists Review, actually admitted to its desire to exploit the holiday. Jarvis was strongly opposed to every aspect of the holiday’s commercialization, arrested for protesting the sale of flowers, and petitioning to stop the creation of a Mother’s Day postage stamp.

Today we are in multiple wars that continue to claim the lives of thousands of sons and daughters. We are also experiencing a still-rising commercialization of nearly every aspect of life; the exploitation of every possible human event and emotion at the benefit of corporations.

Let’s take this Mother’s Day to excuse ourselves from the pressure to consume and remember its radical roots—that mothers, or rather all women, in fact, all people, have a stake in war and a responsibility as American citizens to protest the incredible violence that so many fellow citizens, here and abroad, must suffer through.

The thousands of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the devastating impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on our veterans are just the beginning of the terrible repercussion of war. As we saw last week an announcement of an extension of the military occupation of Afghanistan, let this mother’s day be a day after Julia Ward Howe’s own heart as we stand up and say no to 12 more years of war.

OK, while we are glad to see this history preserved, we must protest the distortion of stating that the Mother’s Day Proclamation was written “in response to the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War.” This editorial bizarrely (cynically?) fails to mention the thing that Julia Ward Howe was most famous for—penning the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic“! Obviously, and contrary to the implication above, Howe did not see the American Civil War as mere senseless slaughter! The lyrics of the Battle Hymn (far more well-known than those of the Mother’s Day Proclamation) are filled with both awe at the terror of war, and unflinching conviction of its necessity in the cause of eradicating slavery. It has served as propaganda for several far more morally ambiguous wars since then—even if political correctitude has mandated changing Howe’s line “Let us die to make men free” to “Let us live to make men free…”

When it came to the Civil War, Howe was no pacifist—even if her work was later taken up by Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, who, as the West Virginia Division of Culture and History informs us, did support her state’s neutrality in the conflict. The seamless continuity between Howe and Jarvis portrayed in the editorial seems not to have been the case. Jarvis launched “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” during the Civil War, organizing local mothers to feed, clothe and treat the wounded from both sides that passed through (and fought over) West Virginia’s territory.

Howe’s Proclamation came nearly a decade later, when the Civil War was well over and done with. The year of the Proclamation, 1870, was of course that of the Franco-Prussian War—and this really was much closer to the senseless carnage of an internecine imperialist bloodbath, devoid of any such weighty issue as slavery and its eradication. But here, too, things were not so clear-cut as a pure pacifist sentiment would allow. A key grievance of the Parisian Communards in 1871 was the French regime’s armistice with Prussia—Parisians had suffered terribly in Bismarck’s siege of their city, and saw the regime’s acquiescence in its occupation by the Prussians as a betrayal of their sacrifice. Upon seizing power in the city, the Commune abolished conscription and the army, but raised a popular militia to resist the Prussians and French government troops alike.

We aren’t making a pro-war argument here—but we are making the case for a serious anti-war one. Obama’s deal for an indefinite occupation of Afghanistan must be opposed. But Afghanistan was at war before the US got there (thanks in large part to years of US and Russian meddling, we acknowledge), and it will likely remain at war even if the US can be pressured to leave. As we have repeatedly pointed out, Afghanistan is caught between two poles of terrorism—that of the US, NATO and the Karzai regime, and that of the Taliban. Many progressives—including in groups such as Women for Afghan Women, which supports the “troop surge”—are afraid to take a troops-out position because of what a Taliban victory would mean for Afghanistan’s women, ethnic and religious minorities, and remaining secularists. Failing to even acknowledge these fears will do us no good. We say regarding Afghanistan, as we said regarding Iraq, that a pacifist position is insufficient. The troops-out demand, to have any legitimacy, must be wedded to vigorous efforts in solidarity with the progressive secular opposition. Contrary to popular perceptions, this opposition does exist—and it has, every step of the way, protested both the US/NATO occupation and moves towards power-sharing with the Taliban in the name of “peace.” It is represented by heroic figures such as Malalai Joya and the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). Any “anti-war” position that does not include a voice for them is a betrayal of Afghanistan’s women.

See our last posts on Afghanistan and the politics of the anti-war movement.

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