TODAY IN DEPRESSING WOMEN'S HISTORY: The Weird, Sad Story Behind Mother's Day

Feeling bummed and/or guilty about Mother’s Day? This will make it worse.
Publish date:
May 11, 2012
mothers, sad stories, mother's day, anna jarvis, antiwar activism, sorry moms

Anna Jarvis, action daughter!

Predictably enough, it all started with a dedicated daughter.

Anna Reeves Jarvis was bringing up her family -- among them daughter Anna -- in West Virginia during the Civil War. If you know your American history, you can imagine how peaceful and relaxing West Virginia was at the time.

Nevertheless, Jarvis the elder took time out from her ridiculously busy schedule of having children and keeping everyone alive as long as possible to organize Mother’s Day Work Clubs in her local neighborhoods. These clubs did fundraising for medicine, and supplied other support services for the community, while also helping to pick up the slack for mothers ill with tuberculosis and working to improve sanitation and food safety (at least as much as was possible in the mid-1800s).

Unfortunately, the political end to the Civil War did not herald a similarly decisive social conclusion. When soldiers from both sides of the conflict returned home to West Virginia, the tension was extreme, and violent arguments were common. Undeterred, in 1865 Jarvis the elder organized a Mother’s Friendship Day at the local courthouse, the purpose of which was to try to heal the wounds that had torn apart formerly friendly neighbors, and even seen whole families split down the middle by the war.

To everyone’s surprise, it worked, and nobody was shot or punched. Yay, Jarvis the elder! Maybe that helped with the horror of losing eight of her 12 children to disease before they reached adulthood. Maybe not. Civil War times completely sucked, let’s be honest.

In the meantime, poet Julia Ward Howe was also advocating for a Mother’s Day -- although her version was a little more radical than Jarvis’ kum-ba-ya approach. Howe’s 1870 Mother’s Day Proclamation reads in part:

Say firmly: "We will not have questions answered 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."

From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with Our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice." Blood does not wipe out dishonor, Nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil At the summons of war, Let women now leave all that may be left of home For a great and earnest day of counsel.

Julia Ward Howe was kind of a badass. Unfortunately, the patriarchy didn’t much like her Mother’s Day, and it was never formally recognized.

Flash forward to 1905: Anna Reeves Jarvis dies in her home just west of Philadelphia (the family moved there after her husband died). Her daughter Anna allegedly swears at her mother’s gravesite (I sort of imagine her doing this like Scarlett O’Hara finding the turnip in “Gone With the Wind” and declaring she’ll never go hungry again) to make Mother’s Day a big-deal officially-recognized thing nationwide, in her mother’s memory.

There is a possibly apocryphal aspect to this already sad story, in which Anna junior had fought bitterly with Anna senior about some unknown subject and did not get to set it right before her mother died. For whatever reason, Anna junior was SUPER invested in Mother’s Day. So she did what any right thinking holiday-advocating woman would do: She quit her job and started writing letters.

Anna junior wrote to politicians, to church leaders, and to anyone she thought might lend her crusade some support. Three years after Jarvis the elder’s passing, the first Mother’s Day Sunday Service took place at a church in her home state of West Virginia. By 1909, Mother’s Day services were happening in 46 US states, as well as in Mexico and Canada.

Finally, all of Anna junior’s letter-writing, advocating and lobbying paid off, and in 1914, the United States Congress passed a resolution establishing Mother’s Day as a holiday, which was subsequently signed by President Woodrow Wilson.

And then things started to go downhill.

Within the next decade, Anna junior had grown incredibly disillusioned with the commercialization of Mother’s Day. Her frustration grew to the point of attempting to sue state governments over their Mother’s Day celebrations and publicly reaming Eleanor Roosevelt for meeting with non-Jarvis-affiliated Mother’s Day organizations. Jarvis especially loathed the proliferation of commercially printed greeting cards, saying:

“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”

The ultra-crotchety Anna junior never married, and spent her declining years nursing her invalid sister until 1944, when her sister died. Because Anna was now alone, her “friends” (seriously, this is how the story goes) had her placed in a sanitarium outside Philadelphia, where she died four years later, alone, childless, with barely a penny to her name, and deeply saddened by the way her life’s work had been compromised by capitalist enterprise.

The end. So if you were going to send a card, maybe write your mom an email or letter today instead. OR ELSE THE GHOST OF ANNA JARVIS WILL HAUNT YOU THE REST OF YOUR DAAAAAYS. She’d probably be a really depressing ghost too, just sort of looming around and giving you disappointed looks. Better to be safe than sorry.