Mother’s Day by Anne Baird

Mothers’ Day is coming! Advertisements urge us to remember Mom with cards, candy, flowers and gifts. Mother’s Day is the most popular day of the year to dine out! Florists, candy-makers, restaurateurs and retailers have become the beneficiaries of one of the most commercially successful holidays in history.

The celebration of personal mothers, however, is a relatively new phenomenon. In ancient times, the Great Mother was a goddess, not your mom. She was the focus of state festivals honoring her in almost every culture on Earth. A few examples of such transcendent, powerful mothers, worshipped even by men, include Egypt’s Isis, Queen of the Immortals; Greece’s Demeter, the Fierce Mother; and Gaia, Mother of All.

The age of goddesses was destroyed by the triumph of paternalistic religions that relegated the Great Mothers to the shadows of myth and legend. Women, for the most part, became chattel, their value measured by their fertility, their ability to work, and as pawns in forging advantageous marriage alliances between families. Today’s contemporary goddesses are just beginning to reclaim their forgotten divine ancestry!

Mother’s Day, as we know it, wasn’t even celebrated in the US until the late 19th and early 20th century. The American Civil War, (1861–1865), one of the bloodiest conflicts in American history, was the catalyst.

Horrified by the suffering of wounded Confederate and Union soldiers, a compassionate, young Appalachian mother, Ann Jarvis, organized women to take care of men on both sides of the conflict. In 1866, after the war ended, she continued working for reconciliation between previous enemies. After her death in 1907, her daughter, Anna Marie Jarvis, fought to found a memorial day for women like her mother who were dedicated pacifists, working for peace and social justice.

Another crusader inspired by the work of Ann Jarvis was Julia Ward Howe, an American poet and social activist, who wrote the lyrics for the Union’s Battle Hymn of the Republic. The carnage of the Civil War, however, turned her into a fierce anti-war activist and suffragette. In 1870, she issued her stirring Mother’s Day Proclamation, urging women to fight to prevent their men from destroying each other in wars. Her agenda didn’t succeed. But her voice, expressing women’s opposition to war, was never fully silenced, and is still heard today. (Though not, unfortunately, in countries where women have no voice.)

Mother’s Day finally caught on! In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared the first National Mother’s Day. Americans were asked to fly the flag in honor of mothers whose sons had been killed in the war. (By then, we were embarking on World War I – with more bereaved mothers to celebrate.)

As the holiday gained traction, however, its original focus – the quest for peace and women’s rights – became lost in creeping commercialism. Nine years after Mother’s Day was formally adopted, Anna Marie scarcely recognized the holiday she and her mother had fought to establish. She believed that their ideals were being commercialized by a nation of money-grubbing shopkeepers.

Enraged, Anna Marie opposed and was even jailed for disrupting Mother’s Day celebrations that she regarded as frivolous. She died, an impoverished, bitter, lonely woman who never married or became a mother herself. Ironically, the Florists’ Association she despised, paid her final expenses.

On Mother’s Day, we should celebrate the woman who gave us life, loved, nurtured, and raised us, sometimes at great personal cost. Surely, Anna Marie wished to honor her beloved parent, as well as the social agenda she championed. Some of us are fortunate to have more than one mother: a grandmother, aunt, or friend who stands in the place of, or beside, a biological mother.

Mama Ethel, a proud West Indian, was mine. She taught me that beauty, dignity and wisdom are not restricted to those who look like you, and that love transcends the narrow bond of shared blood. From Mama, I learned that we are all daughters of the goddess, and that every woman in the world carries divinity within her.

Anna Marie would be pleased to learn that, despite her disappointment at the commercialization of Mothers’ Day, many women continue the fight for peace and social justice that she and her mother began. On Mother’s Day, a host of activists in such groups as Gather the Women, and The Great Silent Grandmothers Gathering, will come together to demonstrate for an end to war, and the emancipation of women who still live under oppression. That’s what mothers do.

While enjoying the loving customs of Mother’s Day, let’s pause to remember that it comes to us as a gift from women, and even the legendary goddesses, who went before. And that the hopes of activists like Ann and Anna Marie Jarvis, and Julia Ward Howe, inspire us still.

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