The Radical History of Mother’s Day

Updated: Apr 8, 2020

By Samantha Blake and Corey Greer

This piece was originally published in Ms. Magazine.

The average American will spend $196.47 on Sunday; nationwide, we’ll drop a whopping $24.95 billion this weekend. Every mother deserves to be showered with gifts, love and affection—but the radical history of Mother’s Day is being lost in its corporatization.

“We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs,” abolitionist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe wrote in her “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World,” later deemed the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” in 1870. “From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says ‘Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.'”

Mother's Day Proclamation at the Library of Congress, photograph by Corey Greer

Ward Howe had just lived through the Civil War, the bloodiest battle America ever fought. Nearly as many U.S. men died in captivity during the Civil War as were killed in the Vietnam War, not to mention the millions who lived and died in enslavement. A total of 750,000 people died during the Civil War—2.5 percent of the population at the time. If that proportion of Americans died today, that number would be 8 million.

Women’s political involvement during the Reconstruction era was exceedingly limited—this was still five decades before Congress passed the 19th Amendment. Ward Howe rebelled against Americans who believed that politics were inherently evil and would corrupt women’s natural “moral and spiritual authority,” and that the most civil-minded duty was to raise patriotic and moral sons. Without the power of the vote, Ward Howe harnessed the power of the pen and wrote one of the most moving and evocative proclamations on the evils and harm of war.

Over two centuries later, her words still ring true.

Women of Ward Howe’s time realized that all of the work, time and love that they poured into raising the next generation was for naught. They were raising their sons for slaughter. “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them,” she wrote, “of charity, mercy and patience.”

Ward Howe ends her poem with a solution: Create a congress of women to promote peace and end the carnage. She welcomes women from all nationalities to come and ask all their questions, promote alliances and achieve lasting peace.