Sunday, May 9, 2010


The idea of an annual Mother’s (Peace) Day originated with Julia Ward Howe, remembered primarily as the poet who wrote the words for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Born in May, 1819, Julia was an abolitionist and, with her husband Samuel Gridley Howe, co-published the anti-slavery newspaper The Commonwealth. She was a committed Christian, also active in the peace movement and the women's suffrage movement.

In 1870, Howe became outraged by the ravages of the Civil and Franco-Prussian Wars. Believing that women had a particular sensitivity and understanding of the human costs of war, Julia called upon women everywhere to stand up for peaceful resolutions and negotiations rather than violence and bloodshed. In an effort to draw this into public conversation and commitment, Howe issued a proclamation:

Arise then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
"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 bosum 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 1872, the first Mothers' Peace Day Observance was held on the second Sunday in June, and the meetings continued for several years. Her idea was widely accepted, but she was never able to get the day recognized as an official holiday.
After she died, other women took on the cause of establishing a Mother’s Peace Day, notably Anna Jarvis, an Appalachian woman whose own mother was an inspiring community leader involved in reconciliation efforts between Confederate and Union neighbors.

In 1907, the first Mother’s Day was celebrated in West Virginia. In 1914 the second Sunday of May was finally declared an official national holiday, “Mother’s Day,” by President Woodrow Wilson. It had taken 34 years, but Julia Howe didn’t live to see it.

Anna did. The day was intended to be spent first in church, and then at home with everyone writing special letters to their moms. In the spirit of Julia Howe, people were to be particularly mindful of mother’s teachings of “charity, mercy, and patience.” People wore red or pink carnations in honor of their moms if their mothers were living, white ones if they had died.

But Anna also lived to see this day, dedicated to peacemaking and world peace, quickly overtaken by commercialism. The greeting card industry jumped in, and Anna was appalled that anyone would buy a Mother’s Day card rather than write a letter themselves. Florists exploited the sentimental symbolism of the carnations, and made a fortune selling more and more every year. By 1924, just 10 years after establishing Mother’s Day as a federal holiday, Anna was so offended by the commercialization which had taken over the Day that she began to petition Congress to abolish it. It was no longer anything close to what it was intended to be. In 1930 she was arrested for disturbing the peace at a Mother’s Day carnation sale. She spent the rest of her life and finances fighting the holiday.

Today, Mother’s Day is one of the most profitable commercial holidays for florists, greeting card publishers, and phone companies. The emphasis on mothers’ roles in peacemaking and world peace has long since vanished.

Anna died in 1948. She had no children.

Sources:, article by Anne Gibbons, chaplain at Lynchburg University

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