During the past 15 months, mothers, especially mothers of color, have shouldered the burdens of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States more than any other demographic. While the virus is more likely to kill men than women, mothers have been significantly overrepresented among “essential workers.”
Mothers have also lost a disproportionate number of jobs and economic opportunities resulting in a “shecession,” provided exponentially more care to children learning from home and sick family members and experienced marked declines in overall physical and mental health. There is mounting evidence that these economic, health and emotional tolls are incontrovertible.
And, now, Mother’s Day. How should we mark Mother’s Day in 2021? What, exactly, are we celebrating?
Mother’s Day offers an opportunity to think critically about women’s domestic labor and what our nation would look like if our laws, corporate policies and cultural norms treated mothers as autonomous and equal citizens whose labor was valued. In fact, this sort of national reckoning is precisely what women had in mind when they first demanded a national holiday in honor of women in 1914.
That spring, suffrage leader Anna Howard Shaw lobbied President Woodrow Wilson to declare the first Saturday in May Women’s Independence Day “in recognition of the right and necessity that the women of the United States should become citizens in fact as well as in name.” Ruth Hanna McCormick, the Illinois suffragist later elected to Congress, then organized women across America to participate in the first Women’s Independence Day on May 2, 1914. Women in every state gathered to read a woman’s version of the Declaration of Independence and demand the vote.
Wilson did not yet support the federal suffrage amendment. He also didn’t want to meet with any pesky suffragists and ignored Shaw’s request. Instead, he proclaimed that henceforth the second Sunday in May would be Mother’s Day, reminding the nation of women’s primary role in American life. Wilson decreed that American flags should be flown at all government buildings and at private homes “as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”
Wilson’s Mother’s Day proclamation disappointed women’s rights advocates as well as the women who had organized state and local Mother’s Day events since the 1870s. These early Mother’s Day events were never about empty praise of mothers, as Wilson imagined. Rather, they were opportunities for women to shape political debates, enact changes to policies affecting women and children and provide community support for mothers.