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Let's Go Back to The Feminist Anti-War Roots of Mother's Day

By Carla Goldstein, Director, The Women's Institute at Omega

Transcript of Commentary for WAMC 51% - The Women's Perspective.

You wouldn't know it from a visit to the Hallmark card store, but the origin of Mother's Day in the U.S. has feminist anti-war roots.

The earliest celebrations honoring mothers trace back to ancient times and were primarily spiritual in nature. They centered around goddesses and other icons that represented motherhood.

Over time, celebrations shifted to focus on mothers themselves, and their contributions to families and society. As the holiday made its way to the United States in the early 1900s, it took a significant turn, becoming a call out to mothers to join in the common purpose of ending war. Two very different women helped shape this vision in the late 1860s and 1870s in response to the gruesomeness of the Civil War.

Ann Jarvis, a young Appalachian homemaker who had been a leader in community health, organized women's nursing brigades to treat soldiers from both sides of the war. When the war was over, the club's name transformed to Mother's Day Friendship Clubs, and they worked to help former enemies reconcile and live in peace together.

Ann Jarvis' work inspired Julia Ward Howe, a New Yorker from a wealthy family, who was a poet, an abolitionist, and a suffragette. In 1870, she wrote a document called the Mother's Day Proclamation that called on women across nations to convene in a general congress as soon as possible to plan how to put an end to all wars.

Her document made a big impact because of her prominent position in the community, and because a decade before that she had written what has now become one of the most famous patriotic songs—the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Her efforts at using the Mother's Day Proclamation as an anti-war organizing tool spread to almost 20 U.S. cities over the next few years, but dissipated once she stopped supporting it financially.

It took several decades before Mother's Day became a national holiday, and when it did in 1916, its purpose was to be "a public expression of love and reverence for the mothers of our country." This reverence had a concrete limitation because that very same year Congress voted down the Susan B. Anthony amendment giving women the right to vote. Reverence yes, political power no.

Far from its anti-war roots, Mother's Day became almost instantly commercialized. It has grown into the second largest consumer-spending day in the United States, with close to $15 billion dollars in spending on flowers, food, jewelry and other tokens of appreciation. While taking a day out of our normal routine to tip our hats to mom is nice, imagine if the original vision to end war had been realized.

Over the past century, mothers have increasingly become the primary victims of armed conflict, with 82 percent of those impacted by war being women and children. The raping of women has increasingly become a weapon of war and it is estimated that in recent decades 20 million children have become orphaned as a result of conflict. Ending war is everyone's issue, but mother's—who bear life—have a primary stake.

As mothers in the United States, we are in a unique and pivotal position to contribute to the next chapter in ending war. The U.S. is responsible for almost 50% of the world's spending on military activity, placing it number one as global aggressor. As mothers with political power, we have the capacity to shape this country's human security policy, and we can make an enormous difference.

As Julia Ward Howe envisioned 140 years ago, we will be joining mothers across nations who are now organizing massive efforts for peace. There are “congresses” as she described in the original proclamation, happening on every continent, and the United Nations has just created UN Women, which, among other initiatives, seeks to place women at the center of peace talks and reconciliation efforts.

This June in Vienna, in honor of Mother's Day, Women Without Borders is convening a program sponsored by their SAVE initiative—Sisters Against Violent Extremism.

SAVE is the world's first female counter-terrorism platform. The event is called “Mothers Move.” It will bring together eight women from around the world who have suffered from terrorism. These women are turning their pain into action, and working, as Anna Jarvis did, to reconcile with those considered to be their enemy.

And there are many other amazing women's organizations, old and new, working to end war and violence, like the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, which was founded in 1915, the year after Mother's Day was created. There is Code Pink; Women for Women International; V-Day, Women Waging Peace, the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, and the list is growing by the day.

Mothers in this country may not be on the front line of most wars, but we can be on the front line of ending war. This mother's day, I urge us to pick up the trail of the day's origins, and I send gratitude to Ann Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe and all the other mothers working for peace.

The above is a transcript of commentary for WAMC 51% - The Women's Perspective.


Related links:

  • Spiritual Activism Column by Carla Goldstein

    Join Carla Goldstein at Omega's first Women & Power Retreat, July 8-10, 2011. The weekend retreat features a daylong experiential session with author and life coach Martha Beck, and keynote talks from Elizabeth Lesser, Sapphire, and Mallika Dutt, and offers a chance for women to slow down, go within, and learn to access our inner strength and full aliveness. Click here for more information

    Carla Goldstein, J.D., is Omega's Director of External Affairs and Director of The Women’s Institute at Omega.Carla Goldstein, JD, is Omega Institute’s chief external affairs officer and director of the Women’s Institute at Omega. Carla is an attorney with 25 years of experience in public interest advocacy and has worked extensively in city and state government on issues related to women’s rights, poverty, public health, and social justice. She has contributed to more than 100 city, state, and federal laws. Carla has appeared on local and national radio and television and makes public presentations to a wide range of audiences on issues related to women’s empowerment, holistic and sustainable living, and spiritual activism. She is a commentator for WAMC’s show, 51%, and writes a column on Feminist.com. Carla serves as President of the Board for Friends of Women Without Borders, and is a member of the Advisory Board of Feminist.com.

    Before joining the Omega Institute, Carla was the vice president for public affairs at Planned Parenthood of New York City (PPNYC), where she directed the agency’s advocacy and strategic communications work. She also served as the founding director of the PPNYC Action Fund, the political arm of PPNYC. Before joining PPNYC Carla worked for the speaker of the New York City Council, where she helped craft and advocate for the City Council’s state and federal legislative agendas. She joined the council after working as a public defender at the Legal Aid Society, where she represented clients in criminal proceedings. Before that, she worked for the speaker of the New York State Assembly as a policy analyst of human services issues. While in law school at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Carla was a cofounding editor-in-chief of the state’s first women’s law journal, now published under the name Buffalo Journal of Gender, Law and Social Policy. For her work with the journal, Carla won the Dale S. Margulis award, which recognizes the student who makes “the most significant contribution to the law school and the community.” She was also the First Place Winner of the Desmond Moot Court Competition.

    Carla was an adjunct professor at CUNY Queens College for 8 years, where she taught a course called Law and Social Justice, which was designed to empower students to be effective advocates for progressive social change. Carla also teaches regularly on a range of topics at Omega Institute.

    Read Spiritual Activism a column by Carla Goldstein


    Commentary by Carla Goldstein

    Founded in 1977, Omega is the nation's largest holistic learning center whose mission is provide innovative educational experiences that awaken the best in the human spirit, providing hope and healing for individuals and society. Every year more than 20,000 people attend workshops, retreats, and conferences on its 195-acre campus in the countryside of Rhinebeck, New York, and at other sites around the country.

    The Women’s Institute, a dynamic new component of Omega, is dedicated to empowering women around the world. It has grown out of the momentum created by the annual Women and Power conferences that Omega Institute has presented in partnership with V-Day since 2002. It seeks to sustain throughout the year the community and inspiration generated at the conferences. Women’s deep wisdom is essential to the creation of a more sustainable and loving culture in every facet of life, from the personal to the political. The Women’s Institute provides opportunities for women and men to inspire and strengthen their visions and authentic voices through unique learning and community building experiences.

    For more information, visit www.eomega.org.

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