Mother’s Day Didn’t Always Suck

By Gene Franks

Until recently I assumed, as most people do, that Mother’s Day was always the same syrupy, commercialized, early summer event, replete with platitudes and showy sentimentalism, that we have learned to tolerate once a year. As a holiday, it has always been a trap. Certainly no one wants to ignore his mother on a day set aside just for her honor, but the commercialization and shallow sentimentality of the event make it somehow just another insult to endure.

Not long ago I read an article by Ruth Rosen, a historian at the University of California at Davis, with information that made me take Mother’s Day a lot more seriously. According to Rosen, the whole thing started with a West Virginia community activist named Anna Reeves Jarvis, who in 1858 organized an event she called Mothers’ Works Days. Her goal was to improve sanitation in Appalachian communities. Later, during the Civil War, Ms. Jarvis organized women to care for the wounded on both sides, and she organized meetings for the purpose of convincing men to stop fighting. In a sense you could say that Anna Reeves Jarvis was mother of Mother’s Day.

It was Julia Warde Howe, the writer of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” however, who in 1872 proposed an annual Mother’s Day for Peace. The purpose was to abolish war. For the next thirty years Americans celebrated Mothers’ Day for Peace on June 2.

During the last half of the nineteenth century women worked as abolitionists, campaigned against lynching and consumer fraud, and fought for improved working conditions for women and protection for children. “To the activists, the connection between motherhood and the fight for social and economic justice seemed self-evident,” Professor Rosen says. Mother’s Day for them had a high moral purpose.. “The women who conceived of Mother’s Day would be bewildered by the ubiquitous ads that hound us to find that ‘perfect gift for Mom.’”

How this worthy event, born as an expression of women’s public activism, came to be the day when “the little woman” gets some flowers, a meal at a restaurant, and a sentimental card is a familiar American story. Like everything in America, it’s all about business. Here again is Professor Rosen:

In 1913, Congress declared the second Sunday in May to be Mother’s Day. By then, the growing consumer culture had successfully redefined women as consumers for their families. Politicians and businessmen eagerly embraced the idea of celebrating the private sacrifices made by individual mothers. As theFlorists’ Review, the industry’s trade journal, bluntly put it, “This was a holiday that could be exploited.”

The new advertising industry quickly taught Americans how to honor their Mothers– by buying flowers. Outraged by florists who were selling carnations for the exorbitant price of $1 apiece, Anna Jarvis’ daughter undertook a campaign against those who “would undermine Mother’s Day with their greed.” But she fought a losing battle. Within a few years, the Florists’ Review triumphantly announced that it was “Miss Jarvis who was completely squelched.”

Since then, Mother’s Day has ballooned into a billion-dollar industry.

Like other American holidays, Mother’s Day has become largely a sales event. I won’t add to the syrup by saying we need to restore it to its original purpose. Perhaps we should rethink the whole issue.

Professor Rosen seems to advocate a commemoration of women’s role as public activists. I do not oppose that, but for me, mothers—and I include all women, whether they have children or not, because the mother principle resides in all women—should be celebrated as the great regenerating force of nature. Mother’s Day should be a mystical, ritual celebration of life, with Woman Personified—the bearer of the Immortal Rose, as the poet Garcia Lorca called Her– honored and venerated for her role as a sexual entity, the purveyor and guardian of Nature’s regenerating energy. In short, Mother’s Day ought to be a lot naughtier than it is.

The Mother’s Day celebration seems currently to center on Mom’s role as a pancake maker. I’ve got no quarrel with a good pancake, but it’s the Immortal Rose that keeps the world turning. Let’s face it. We all got here because our Mothers were sexy, not because they kept a tidy kitchen.


Special Mother’s Day Report Report from Gazette Columnist B. Bea Sharper:

Number of births worldwide in 2009 that resulted from lust for pancakes: 0.

Number of births worldwide in 2009 that resulted from lust for Mom: 112,659,446.