Ruth Rosen: How to return Mother's Day to its original meaning

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Ruth Rosen, former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, is professor emerita of history and currently teaches at University of California-Berkeley. She is the author of The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America.]

The hawking of Mother's Day is hardly new. This year, within an hour, my e-mail inbox filled up with Plow & Hearth's ads for "Pretty & practical outdoor gifts for Mom," eBag's promise to offer "Mother's Day Markdowns," Winter Silks' idea on how "to pamper Mom with skin-soothing sleepwear," and the Art Institute of Chicago's high-brow message to "Honor Her with a Gift of Unique Beauty."

Growing numbers of nonprofits have also joined the stampede to use Mother's Day to sell their wares or solicit contributions. The liberal news site Buzzflash asks us to "Celebrate an Economically Just Mother's Day by Helping Women Move From Welfare to Employment With the Purchase of These Eight Miniature Pastel Soap Hearts, Gift-Boxed." If you detect a certain disconnect here, you're not alone. Or consider the Sierra Club's e-mail promising "Great Mother's [Day] Gifts starting at $20" that will do "your part for the environment by sponsoring a wild place in her name." Does the Sierra Club really have the right to name places in the wilderness after our mothers?

Do these nonprofit appeals exploit the holiday just like their commercial counterparts, or are they reclaiming the original meaning of the day? Perhaps the answer depends on whether the political cause that hitches itself to Mother's Day has any connection to the lives of women or mothers—or to why the holiday first came into being.

The women who originally celebrated Mother's Day conceived of it as an occasion to use their status as mothers to protest injustice and war. In 1858, Anna Reeves Jarvis organized Mother's Work Days in West Appalachian communities to protest the lack of sanitation that caused disease-bearing insects and polluted water to sicken or even kill poor workers. In 1870, after witnessing the bloody Civil War, Julia Ward Howe—a Boston pacifist, poet, and suffragist who wrote the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"—proclaimed a special day for mothers to oppose war. Committed to ending all armed conflict, Howe wrote, "Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage. … Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience."...

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