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Mother’s Day Has Deeply Radical Roots

Yes, you should absolutely call your mom today. But you should also know that Mother’s Day isn’t just a holiday for greeting card and chocolate companies to make a buck, but of radical antiwar and feminist organizers.  

Women Strike for Peace activists at a Censure Nixon rally in Washington, DC, on January 18, 1972. (Dorothy Marder Collection / Swarthmore College)

Mother’s Day is known to most Americans as a day when you should call your mom. And you probably should! But it also has a rich political history.

Mother’s Day began in 1858 when Ann Jarvis, an Appalachian housewife and mother to at least eleven children, organized “Mother’s Work Days” to improve sanitation, in a time when polluted water and disease-bearing pests were major causes of death in poor communities like hers. Jarvis was also a peace activist who organized Mother’s Day Work Clubs to care for soldiers on both sides of the Civil War.

When Ann Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, campaigned for an official Mother’s Day to honor her own mother’s lifelong activism. In 1914, her efforts succeeded: Congress passed a resolution making Mother’s Day official.

A portrait of Ann Jarvis on the program for the first official Mother’s Day service, in May 1908. (West Virginia and Regional History Center, WVU Libraries)

The holiday also has an antiwar history. In 1872, after the brutal Franco-Prussian war, Julia Ward Howe, a peace activist who wrote “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” established a day for mothers and antiwar protest. As my Jacobin colleague Branko Marketic wrote in 2019, her vision was an internationalist one, calling for a “general congress of women without limit of nationality” to “promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.” Howe organized protests and political conferences on the day, also calling it a “Women’s Peace Festival,” for many years.

For much of the twentieth century, the political ideals of Ann Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe were eclipsed as Mother’s Day became associated with treacly Hallmark commercialism. Anna Jarvis herself became disgusted with it by the early 1920s, even boycotting florists and picketing a confectioners’ convention to protest Mother’s Day price-gouging on flowers and sweets.

But in the 1950s and ’60s, Women Strike for Peace (WSP) held Mother’s Day actions around the country to protest the life-threatening nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The group had a respectable, middle-class image, often protesting while wearing white gloves and pushing strollers. The anti-Communist House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), however, took a great interest in WSP because of the many Communists involved in the group or closely associated with it. Indeed, a HUAC report on the group noted that, when communists use the word “peace,” it may sound wholesome like mom and apple pie, but a critique of capitalism is implied. (The committee was correct.)

Activists from Women Strike for Peace holding placards relating to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. (Library of Congress)

Another group known for Mother’s Day actions was the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), made up of poor women demanding the economic right to survival and often much more. As sociologist Wilson Sherwin has found, welfare rights activists often had a radical critique of wage labor and a vision of a society in which everyone was entitled to comfort, leisure, and pleasure, whether they worked for a capitalist boss or not.

The NWRO’s most famous Mother’s Day action was a march on Washington on May 12, 1968, led by Coretta Scott King (who was also active in WSP) just after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Organized with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the march had been intended to launch King’s Poor People’s Campaign (conceived just before his murder) to demand more government support for the poor, but the NWRO also used the occasion to draw attention to its effort to repeal the 1967 Social Security Amendments, which added work incentives to the program. In addition to a march through Washington, DC, the NWRO also held smaller actions around the country. Members of WSP joined them.

National Welfare Rights Organization activists marching in Washington, DC, May 1968. (Jack Rottier Collection / George Mason University Libraries)

So Mother’s Day has radical, materialist roots and history. Still, as socialist feminist scholar Kristen Ghodsee observes, socialists have often rejected Mother’s Day, preferring to celebrate and protest on International Women’s Day, March 8, which celebrates women as workers, a broader category that can include the labor of caring for their own children at home. (Indeed, in Albania and some other formerly communist Eastern European countries, Mother’s Day is celebrated only as part of International Women’s Day.) In favoring March 8 over a mother-exclusive day, Ghodsee explains, “Socialists embraced the radical idea that a woman is more than a mother, though she may be that, too.”

This is a fair point. The WSP and NWRO shrewdly used Mother’s Day — and, as historian Georgina Denton has noted, the moral authority of motherhood — to bring radical ideas into the mainstream. They sometimes used essentialist language that radicals would likely reject today, for some of the reasons Ghodsee suggests. At the 1968 march, Coretta Scott King, emphasizing “mother power,” discussed the political responsibilities of mothers:

Since women have been entrusted with the sacred task of giving birth and rearing children, transmitting the values and cultural heritage of the nation, we have a special commission at this time to nurture, protect, and save these lives from destruction.

King, of course, was using traditionalist rhetoric in the service of radical and liberationist politics. But in some countries, the politics of Mother’s Day have been openly conservative and natalist.

Code Pink activists in front of the White House. (Code Pink)

For example, in France, Mother’s Day began in the context of elite alarm over low birth rates, as a way of honoring mothers of large families. (The French government still gives out medals to such reproductive overachievers.) In Germany, too, Mother’s Day originates in natalist and nationalist politics. Intended to boost birth rates and promote the production of more Aryans, it became an official holiday under the Nazis.

That lends some serious ammunition to the Mother’s Day haters.

Still, in the United States, Mother’s Day comes out of a rich history of protest — one that is worth reviving.

In our own time, Code Pink, a feminist antiwar group drawing on Julia Ward Howe’s legacy, sometimes holds Mother’s Day protests of US foreign policy. This aspect of the Mother’s Day tradition will be relevant for as long as our government continues to wage endless imperialist wars. The NWRO’s demand for more government support for mothers feels equally relevant.

So consider that legacy as you celebrate Mother’s Day today. Also, call your mom.