Other Maternal Movements

Julia Ward Howe

Portrait of Julia Ward Howe, who was influenial in the advancement of women, and called for peace movement led by women, potecting the sons and daughers they bore. 

Although Anna Jarvis credited herself as the founder of Mother’s Day and is recognized today as the holiday’s founder, others also promoted the idea before Jarvis. Jarvis’ mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, started Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in 1858, which promoted maternal activism to combat disease and childhood mortality found in communities across the nation. Her efforts specifically helped in local Appalachian communities in Taylor County, [West] Virginia. This is credited as one of the first mothers’ day movements. Additionally, in the aftermath of the Civil War, Ann Reeves Jarvis held at Mother’s Friendship Day, which promoted peace and reconciliation in her divided community.

Julia Ward Howe, author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” also advanced the idea of honoring mothers. In 1870, she issued a “Mother’s Peace Day Proclamation, which called for women to protect the lives of those they bore and nurtured through a peace movement. In 1873, within the context of her peace movement work, Howe declared June 2nd as Mother’s Day, which she described as a way to bring women together. She encouraged women to gather together in parlors, churches, and halls to sing hymns, share essays, listen to lectures and pray. Many cities, including Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago held services in honor of Howe’s Mother’s Day between 1873 and 1913. 

In Albion, Michigan in 1877, Juliet Calhoun Blakeley held the first Mother’s Day service outside of the peace movement. This event occurred as a response to social unrest caused by a display of public drunkenness by the sons of the city’s temperance leaders. The Sunday following the event, women took to the pulpit and led the morning’s church service, hence making it a Mother’s Day service. Blakeley’s sons decided to honor their mother, and eventually all mothers, starting a localized Mother’s Day event each May.

Ann Reeves Jarvis, Howe, and Blakley all advocated a mother’s day that allowed for women to become activists and agents of change in their communities. They saw an opportunity and perhaps an obligation for mothers to expand their maternal influence into the public sphere for the greater good. As mothers themselves, these women seized on the opportunity to organize women around their shared maternal experiences in a way that encouraged social and political activism. They envisioned a holiday rooted in a model of social or organized motherhood; a day that genuinely venerated the public dynamic of the material identity by offering mothers a role in their own tribute.

Mary Towels Sassen

Portrait of Mary Towels Sassen who like Anna, called for a similar day to honor mother's.

In Henderson, Kentucky, another tribute to mothers became an annual celebration. Mary Towels Sassen promoted a version of Mother’s Day very similar to that conceived by Anna Jarvis. Sassen, a school teacher, called for an annual observance honoring mothers and pay tribute to a mother’s love and service to the family. Frank Hering, of Indiana and on behalf of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, also laid claim to the idea of a Mother’s Day, calling for a national wide observance as a holiday. Sassen and Hering reduced mothers to passive figures of praise, stemming from their view of motherhood from the that of children rather than parents. 

Anna Jarvis’ Vision of Mother’s Day

Anna Jarvis’ version of a Mother’s Day observance celebrated the mother’s private service to her family rather than acting as a vehicle for social action like the movement of her mother. Jarvis saw the day as one to spend at home, with family. Hers was a sentimental holiday, influenced by her view of motherhood, which came solely through the eyes of a daughter. Jarvis herself never married or had children. She stressed, “It is a day for men and women – ‘big boys and girls’ – as sons and daughters, to honor themselves by showing gratitude to the [mother] who watched over them and with tender care in childhood days.” 

After her mother’s death in 1905, Jarvis set about to pay tribute to her mother by creating a day to honor all mothers. She selected the Second Sunday in May as the day for the celebration to mark the anniversary of her mother’s death. Additionally, she used the symbol of the white carnation as the emblem for the holiday, which was her mother’s favorite flower. 

May 10, 1908 marked the first official observance of Jarvis’ Mother’s Day. She organized the first celebration at Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, WV, where her mother had taught Sunday School for many years. Jarvis did not attend the ceremony, but donated 500 white carnations to those in attendance. 407 people attended the morning service in Grafton. 

Later that day, 15,000 people gathered at the Wanamaker Store Auditorium in Philadelphia, Pa for another service. Jarvis organized and attended this ceremony. Jarvis continued a letter writing campaign to bring additional attention to the holiday. In 1910, West Virginia’s governor proclaimed the Second Sunday in May to be Mother’s Day, becoming the first state to officially recognize the holiday. By 1912, all every US state held a Mother’s Day service, along with many foreign countries. 

In 1914, Jarvis’ letter writing campaign paid off when President Woodrow Wilson signed a Presidential Mother’s Day Proclamation. He called for Americans to display flags on homes and buildings as an expression of love and reverence for their mothers. This officially placed Mother’s Day on the calendar.