“Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided 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.”
-Julia Ward Howe, A Mothers Day Proclamation
If you’re not a pastor, I want to let you in on a little secret: your pastor is probably stressed out about Mothers Day. She is probably assuming that half the women in the room are waiting for their carnation and their standing ovation, and the other half is waiting to craft their angry email at the insensitivity of observing the day at all. Being a pastor is a tough gig.
Of course, so is being a woman. This Sunday is likely going to be a difficult day for most of us — whether it’s Proverbs 31 from the pulpit or someone’s perfectly curated Instagram feed, Mother’s Day feels like it has become nothing more than an opportunity for women to feel shame at our shortcomings and imperfections. (Which, fittingly, is the time-tested way to get us to spend more money.)
Ironically, the origins of Mothers Day are not consumerist, or even centered around the Sanctity of the Perfect Mother — they are activist.
In 1858, a driven and brilliant mom named Anne Jarvis had a passion. She had lost two of her babies before they turned three due to disease, and felt called to prevent that grief for others by equipping them with sanitation information and skills. “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” were her way to organize women to teach each other how to save lives.
Soon the Civil War broke out — another public health emergency. Did you know that more soldiers died because of disease in the prison camps during the civil war than died on the battlefield? She organized her work clubs to serve both Union and Confederate camps; both were devastated by typhoid.
After the war, her work to organize women took a different focus: she created a committee to establish a “Mother’s Friendship Day” so that women all over the country would be catalysts of reconciliation between families who had become divided during the Civil War.
Another awesome woman was inspired by Anne Jarvis’s work, and took it in her own direction. Julia Ward Howe was a writer and activist, and organized a demonstration in New York City in 1872, in the immediate and devastating aftermath of the Civil War. It was called Mothers Day for Peace. This became an annual day encouraging women to advocate politically for peace and justice for all people.
Congress threw both of these days together in 1914, deemed them simply Mothers Day, and it wasn’t long before consumerism took over the activist roots of the day, and it morphed into a saccharine commemoration of femininity, domesticity, and panicked last-minute runs to Walgreens greeting card aisle.
I think the church is the perfect place, and we are in the perfect time, to reclaim Mothers Day. To remember that women have always been prophetic and courageous voices for justice (remember Zipporah, Deborah, Hannah, Abagail, Esther, Rahab, Mary, the women at the empty tomb…). To honor Anne Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe by rededicating ourselves to the health, peace, and reconciliation of our hurting communities. To name the women in our own lives and communities who are, often behind the scenes, doing the crucial work of reconciliation, peace, and true justice.
To put down our wallets for the day. And instead spend some effort making the world a bit more habitable for those who will come after us. What’s more mom-like than that?