Comment: When women sought independence they got Mother’s Day

Women’s suffrage leaders wanted recognition of their rights. They soon soured on a empty holiday.

By Kimberly A. Hamlin / Special To The Washington Post

During the past 15 months, mothers, especially mothers of color, have shouldered the burdens of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States more than any other demographic. While the virus is more likely to kill men than women, mothers have been significantly overrepresented among “essential workers.”

Mothers have also lost a disproportionate number of jobs and economic opportunities resulting in a “shecession,” provided exponentially more care to children learning from home and sick family members and experienced marked declines in overall physical and mental health. There is mounting evidence that these economic, health and emotional tolls are incontrovertible.

And, now, Mother’s Day. How should we mark Mother’s Day in 2021? What, exactly, are we celebrating?

Mother’s Day offers an opportunity to think critically about women’s domestic labor and what our nation would look like if our laws, corporate policies and cultural norms treated mothers as autonomous and equal citizens whose labor was valued. In fact, this sort of national reckoning is precisely what women had in mind when they first demanded a national holiday in honor of women in 1914.

That spring, suffrage leader Anna Howard Shaw lobbied President Woodrow Wilson to declare the first Saturday in May Women’s Independence Day “in recognition of the right and necessity that the women of the United States should become citizens in fact as well as in name.” Ruth Hanna McCormick, the Illinois suffragist later elected to Congress, then organized women across America to participate in the first Women’s Independence Day on May 2, 1914. Women in every state gathered to read a woman’s version of the Declaration of Independence and demand the vote.

Wilson did not yet support the federal suffrage amendment. He also didn’t want to meet with any pesky suffragists and ignored Shaw’s request. Instead, he proclaimed that henceforth the second Sunday in May would be Mother’s Day, reminding the nation of women’s primary role in American life. Wilson decreed that American flags should be flown at all government buildings and at private homes “as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”

Wilson’s Mother’s Day proclamation disappointed women’s rights advocates as well as the women who had organized state and local Mother’s Day events since the 1870s. These early Mother’s Day events were never about empty praise of mothers, as Wilson imagined. Rather, they were opportunities for women to shape political debates, enact changes to policies affecting women and children and provide community support for mothers.

For example, in the years following the Civil War, abolitionist and suffragist Julia Ward Howe, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” began organizing mothers’ peace events, which provide one origin story for Mother’s Day. Having seen the ravages of war (and especially the deaths of so many sons) as a Civil War volunteer, she became a lifelong advocate for peace, using her position as a mother to propel pacifism. Howe organized the first Mother’s Peace Day in 1872, and this event was celebrated in cities across the nation for 30 years.

Anna Jarvis and her mother Ann provided another Mother’s Day origin story. Anna Jarvis grew up in West Virginia where she helped her mother (a woman who bore 13 children and watched nine die) organize Mother’s Day Work Clubs to combat the Appalachian region’s high infant mortality rate with improvements to sanitation and health care. After her mother’s death in 1905, Jarvis committed herself to securing a Mother’s Day holiday as a way to honor her beloved mother and, by extension, all mothers.

But shortly after Wilson declared Mother’s Day a federal holiday in 1914, women like Jarvis became disillusioned with the frivolous commercialization of what to her should have been a sacred and sincere commemoration. Indeed, in 1933, Jarvis even wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking him to remove the federal mandate for Mother’s Day.

Why? Because instead of equality, health care, peace, safety and support, Mother’s Day had become an occasion for vapid expressions of “love and reverence,” increasingly characterized by flowers, brunch and store-bought cards.

More significantly, Jarvis’s opposition signaled that celebrating motherhood had become symbolic, not substantive. One could even argue that Mother’s Day provided a superficial placeholder in lieu of policies that actually would benefit mothers. Just months after the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, Congress passed the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act, a longtime goal of women activists. This landmark legislation funded maternal and infant health-care centers, supported prenatal care and education and significantly reduced infant mortality, especially in rural areas. But the Sheppard-Towner provisions expired in 1929 in the face of increasingly vocal opposition grounded in fears of “communist” child-rearing and the dissolution of the patriarchal family.

Congress next approved major legislation benefiting mothers in the 1940s. For four years during World War II, the United States funded child-care centers across the country, under the Lanham Act, enabling mothers to enter the labor force while husbands fought the war. But, after the war concluded, so too did the program. Like women’s wartime labor, this program succeeded only to the extent to which it was understood to be temporary. Women took to the streets to protest the removal of funding for child-care centers, and federally supported child care has remained a core goal of women activists ever since.

For example, when the National Organization for Women (NOW) issued its first set of goals in 1968, it demanded child-care centers be set up across the country on the same basis as public parks, libraries and schools. As a result of sustained feminist activism, in 1971, Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have set up a national system of high-quality affordable child care. Among all the equity bills passed in the early 1970s — including Title IX and the Equal Rights Amendment — this was the only one that President Richard Nixon vetoed, despite the fact Congress overwhelmingly approved it with bipartisan support. Why? Because conservative activists including staffer Pat Buchanan convinced Nixon that the bill represented a “communal approach to child-rearing” and had “family-weakening implications,” as the president said in his veto statement.

Nixon’s veto killed hopes for federally funded day care for a half-century. But on April 28, President Joe Biden announced his American Families Plan, which proposed free, universal pre-K and subsidized child-care for low- and middle-income Americans. The pandemic has put the need for such programs in bold relief, but their chance of passage depends on overcoming the long-standing opposition to federal support of working mothers.

This history reveals women activists have never considered brunch and a card an adequate way to recognize the work done by American mothers, especially after a year in which they’ve done so much more of it. Returning Mother’s Day to its original roots compels us to reflect on our nation’s long-standing disregard for maternal and infant health — among the worst in the industrialized world, especially for women of color — along with our persistent refusal to enact legislation that would provide meaningful support for working mothers.

The founders of Mother’s Day — Ruth Hanna McCormick, Julia Ward Howe, Ann and Anna Jarvis — demanded an equal voice in shaping the laws that govern women, peace and safety for our children and accessible health care. These origin stories are all the more relevant in 2021 as covid-19 and Biden’s proposals invite a reevaluation of how we treat mothers in America.

Kimberly A. Hamlin is a NEH Public Scholar, a professor of history at Miami University in Ohio and author of “Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener.”

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