Saturday, May 07, 2005

More than carnations
Mother's Day

Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis and Anna Jarvis

Mother's Day is something of a curiosity to me -- my mother always insisted the holiday was invented by florists and she would have nothing to do with it.

It turns out that she was not at all original in thinking such a thing; Anna Jarvis, the woman who popularized the observance in the United States in the early 20th century agreed so much that she called florists and others making money on Mother's Day "charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites."

Anna Jarvis is said to have come up with the idea for a Mother's Day on the second Sunday in May after her own mother died in 1905. Touching as the story is that the two had quarreled and the younger woman was acting out her grief, the notion of Mother's Day seems to have had several precursors and to be of a piece with the trajectory of late 19th century middle class white US feminism.

In 17th century England, Mothering Sunday had been observed on the fourth Sunday of Lent by giving apprentices and servants a holiday to visit their mothers. (It has been revived in Britain on that date in the 20th century in response to attempts to import Jarvis' May date from the US.)

Anna's mother, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, was quite the activist in mid-19th century West Virginia.

[In the 1850s,] Jarvis organized a series of Mothers' Day Work Clubs in Webster, Grafton, Fetterman, Pruntytown, and Philippi, to improve health and sanitary conditions. Among other services, the clubs raised money for medicine, hired women to work for families in which the mothers suffered from tuberculosis, and inspected bottled milk and food. . . .

Ann Jarvis urged the Mothers' Day Work Clubs to declare their neutrality and provide relief to both Union and Confederate soldiers. The clubs treated the wounded and regularly fed and clothed soldiers stationed in the area. Jarvis also managed to preserve an element of peace in a community being torn apart by political differences. . . .

In the summer of 1865, Ann Jarvis organized a Mothers' Friendship Day at the courthouse in Pruntytown to bring together soldiers and neighbors of all political beliefs. The event was a great success despite the fear of many that it would erupt in violence. Mothers' Friendship Day was an annual event for several years.

The abolitionist Julia Ward Howe (author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic) proposed in 1872 that a Mothers' Day for Peace be celebrated on June 2. Howe's Mothers' Day was to be a political occasion, promoting women as full actors for peace in society. It died out after being celebrated for about 10 years

Late 19th century middle class women adhered to many social causes and developed a growing ability to press them. More and more managed to get some education; a few entered professions. They agitated against a life legally at the mercy of their husbands, most notably through the temperance movement, which was the domestic violence movement of its day. They cared for the immigrant poor in urban settlement house (and the most radical ended up supporting labor unions as a result.) And they campaigned to win the vote for themselves.

The younger Jervis had many examples of women campaigners to look at when promoting her new holiday and she used their examples energetically. She "gave up her job -- sometimes reported as a teaching job, sometimes as a job clerking in an insurance office -- to work full-time writing letters to politicians, clergy members, business leaders, women's clubs and anyone else she thought might have some influence." By 1909, Mother's Day services were held in 46 states plus Canada and Mexico. In 1912, West Virginia became the first state to adopt an official Mother's Day; two years later, the US Congress passed a joint resolution establishing the holiday, celebrating especially women's role in the family. The holiday's biggest promoters were religious and prohibition activists who promoted a notion of pure women civilizing dangerous men. The concept had the usual anti-immigrant and racists undertones that pollute US history.

As so often in women's history, a success won through women's hard work became the occasion for constraining women in our 'proper' role.

Though no radical or even feminist by today's measures, Anna Jarvis knew something twisted had happened to her holiday, complaining "I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit." She hated Mother's Day cards, "a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write." Jarvis disrupted a meeting of the American War Mothers in the 1930s, protesting their sale of white carnations for Mother's Day, and was removed by the police.

It got worse, though I found no evidence that Jarvis was even aware of this. German historian Karin Hausen wrote about the role of Mother's Day in a society on the brink of collapsing into fascism in Renate Bridenthal's anthology When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany:

Mother's Day made its appearance shortly after Germany's defeat in World War I. The day that we know as the time to 'give mom a gift,' 'send her flowers,' or 'make her breakfast' was propagated in the Weimar Republic during a period of runaway inflation, political turmoil, and social dislocation. It achieved popularity at a time when government cutbacks hurt mothers and children and the real economic and physical situation for mothers became desperate. In an era of depression and mass unemployment, of leftist ferment and right-wing backlash, Mother's Day was promoted by people who hoped to cover up disorder and reinforce tradition: it was a whitewash decorated with roses.

When the Nazis seized power, they "solved" some social dislocation by firing most of the 100,000 female teachers, 3000 female doctors and 13,000 female musicians who had held jobs in the Weimar Republic. Later they moved Mother's Day to August 12, Hitler's mother's birthday.

I always knew my mother was a wise woman. One of those early 20th century feminists herself, she knew there was something rotten that went with those carnations.

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