Progressives have always loved holidays, which may be why we’ve created so many of them. There are Saturdays, of course, brought to us with no small help from the early 20th century unions. And May Day. And Labor Day.
And Mother’s Day, which started out as the first and perhaps greatest progressive holiday of all.
You may have noticed that all the holidays I’ve just mentioned are in deep trouble. May Day hasn’t been big in the US since the last loud, proud Commie folded up his red flag in the late 1930s. Saturday, as you can testify yourself if you’re reading this from work on the day it was published, is also gravely endangered. Not only do more and more of us work on Saturdays; if you’re on salary, you’re doing it for no pay at all. Labor Day is a boon to the travel industry, since for a lot of us, those three days are the only summer vacation our bosses will let us have. And it’s likely that most Americans, if pressed, would cynically tell you that Mother’s Day was the nefarious handiwork of a secret cabal — a shady backroom marketing deal concocted by executives from Hallmark, FTD, DeBeers, and Russell Stover.
Conservatives don’t like holidays unless they can use them to sell stuff. They have special reason to really not like this one.
Back to the Roots
Mother’s Day got its start as the fusion of two holidays created by two women, both activists protesting the carnage of the Civil War. The first was a young homemaker from West Virginia named Ann Jarvis, whose established the first Mother’s Work Day in 1858 to improve sanitation among her Appalachian neighbors. When the war came up to their doorsteps, Jarvis’s homegrown peace group tended the wounded on both sides; after the war, they worked to reconcile Union and Confederate neighbors in the state.
The other was Boston socialite, suffragette, and poet Julia Ward Howe — an incandescently bright woman who spoke five languages and ran the New England Institute for the Blind with her husband, Dr. Samuel Howe. Howe is still best remembered as the author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic — the abolitionist anthem that captures much of the righteous fury of the Union cause. For 40 years after the war, she was one of the most popular public speakers in the country, getting the full-on rock star treatment wherever she went.
Howe also got involved with the “sanitation” issue while caring for soldiers during the war. The experience changed her rhetoric, but did not soften it: in the years after the war, she became a determined and outspoken pacifist. In 1870, she wrote the original Mother’s Day Proclamation, setting out her vision of a new American holiday in which women brought their moral authority to bear in the cause of peace:
Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
“We will not have questions answered 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.”
From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Blood does not wipe our dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough 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 solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God -
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And 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.
In 1907, Ann Jarvis’s daughter Anna established the first modern Mother’s Day in a Methodist church in Grafton, WV. The idea caught on, and in 1914, Woodrow Wilson declared the first Mother’s Day to honor the mothers who had lost sons in war — the ones we now call Gold Star mothers. Predictably though (this being America after all), within a decade, the event had become so commercialized that Anna Jarvis herself was publicly opposing its corruption. But the damage was done; and so far, it’s proven stubbornly irreversible.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t begin to recover some of what’s been lost.
Guns and Roses
Our new progressive movement has a historic opportunity to bring it back. Code Pink, among other groups, has begun to overtly reclaim Mother’s Day, and restore Howe’s passionate purpose to the occasion. As the nation begins to reckon the true costs of the Iraq atrocity, tomorrow is as good a day as any to reflect on a sobering fact: As with every other war men have ever fought, women will, in the end, bear much of the cost of this one.
It may be that the cost of war to women and their families is so overwhelming that we can’t even bring ourselves to contemplate it. Women who choose to become mothers spend 20 years (and our skinny young figures, our dreamed-for careers, and the most productive season of our lives) nurturing children. For most of us, raising our kids will be the greatest work we ever do. It will certainly be the most demanding. And maintaining our marriages to the men who join us in the task may come in a close second.
What right does anyone — especially our government — have to ask us to sacrifice those beautiful babies, and all the time, money, and energy we invested in creating them, as cannon fodder in rich men’s wars? What right does it have to take our warm-hearted husbands and turn them into coldblooded killers? All the cant about “patriotic duty” and “protecting our way of life” is a massive diversion from a deeper truth: our society has such fathomless contempt for women, and so completely devalues their labor, that it thinks nothing of asking us to give our children and spouses up to the war machine without even discussing how we should be compensated for this supreme sacrifice.
After all: when our government makes us the mothers and wives of soldiers, it not only seizes everything we’ve already invested in our kids and our marriages. It stakes a claim on the rest of our lives going forward, too. It is us, not the leaders who sent them into battle, who be forever haunted by the memory of our dead children. It is us, not the government, who will be burdened until our last day with taking care of sons and daughters and partners who are too damaged to make their own way in the world when they get home. We are the ones who will pick up the pieces when their lives shatter, over and over; who will raise the children and grandchildren they can’t properly parent; who will lie with them at night and hold them for hours while they battle demons we can never see or understand.
There is no amount of money that can ever repay America’s families for this. When so-called “family values” conservatives vote to deny veterans anything less than the best available care, those veterans’ mothers and wives (and fathers and husbands) will be the ones left picking up the slack. In the years ahead, the financial and emotional burden will break a great many of them. Mother’s Day is as good a time as any to take a good hard look at those costs — not just the unimaginable opportunity costs of the war, but the private toll it will continue to take on American families for the next several decades.
It’s not that I have anything against chocolate, flowers, and a nice champagne brunch in bed. Bring it on (and while you’re at it, I wouldn’t say no to a nice foot massage, either). But I would gently suggest that it’s high time we reclaimed the original meaning of this great progressive holiday, and create some new traditions to remind the country what it really means to respect the work of mothers, all the way down.
So, tomorrow, send your mom a corsage. Send a dozen roses to a Gold Star mother. Send a check to Code Pink. Send Julia Ward Howe’s proclamation to every mother you know. And if you think of some other way we can mark the occasion more fittingly, drop it in the comments.
If we really value women and families as much as we claim to every year on Mother’s Day, we will do them the real honor of never asking them to send their children and partners into combat again without a damned good life-or-death reason.