In its early guises, Mothers’ Day was about fighting for a better world for women, not breakfast in bed
Born in the United States amid gunfire, civil war, the antislavery movement and the feminist fight for suffrage, Mother’s Day was meant to be more than it is today.
An early iteration of Mothers’ Day (note the collective possessive) was established by abolitionist and suffragist Julia Ward Howe in the 1870s after the end of the civil war. It was never about confining a mother’s purpose to the unpaid service she gives her children and partner.
Mother’s Day as we know it today was first celebrated on the second Sunday of May in 1908. Founder Anna Jarvis worked to realise the wishes of her mother Ann Reeves Jarvis, a pacifist and abolitionist who wished to acknowledge individual mothers, to “commemorate the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life [my emphasis]. She is entitled to it.”
In 1914 US president Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it a national holiday – with a twist. The 1914 speeches linked explicitly to women’s roles in home life and privacy, rejecting suffragist visions of women as a political class with important political and social roles outside the home.
Jarvis prescribed hand-written letters or cards, and white carnations as Mother’s Day gifts. She was enraged when florists sold the inexpensive flower for a dollar a stem. In 1923 she stopped political and commercial Mother’s Day celebrations in New York, citing breach of copyright. Jarvis grew increasingly litigious as Mother’s Day slipped away from her ideals, even starting campaigns to have the day cancelled. The fight against the politicisation and commercialisation of Mother’s Day at the hands of the floral, card-making and candy industry was one she would lose.