The Original “Mother’s Day”: ‘In the Name of Womanhood and Humanity…’

May 6, 2004 |

by Geov Parrish,

Last year in this space, I took the occasion of an upcoming Mother’s Day weekend to reprint the 1870 call by American poet and women’s leader Julia Ward Howe for the establishment of the holiday. The response was astonishing; the awareness was nearly nil — even by peace activists — that what is now widely viewed as a sentimental tribute to family was originally a call for women to wage a general strike to end war.

This year — as more and more mothers, in America as well as Iraq, mourn their fallen sons and daughters, lost to the insanity of organized violence — Julia Ward Howe’s call for women to not allow their men to constantly play at war is suddenly back in fashion. Around the country, her original Mother’s Day Proclamation will be the basis this year for parades, remembrances, and other events that try to reclaim the holiday’s original spirit in a year when the United States’ (male-dominated) government talks seriously not of avoiding war, but staying the course on the multiple ones we’re already fighting.

The radical origins of Mother’s Day — as a powerful feminist call against war, penned in the wake of the U.S. Civil War in 1870 — are fully compatible with the universal notion of honoring mothers. Women, even more so now, are the primary sufferers of warfare. In the 20th Century, civilian populations bore 90 percent of war’s casualties around the world; mass and indiscriminate attacks, popularized in WWII by the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Allied firebombings in Japan and Germany, and the rape of Nanjing, are only the most spectacular examples of a phenomenon in which women become the rape and famine victims, the refugees, the forgotten statistics in what are invariably the wars of men.

I admit it; I’ll send my elderly mother flowers this year. She appreciates them. But a greater gift for the world’s mothers still awaits: a day in which the voices of women — now, as then, less inclined to rush to war or bask in its false glory — are an equal part in the foreign policy of countries like the United States. As with so many other aspects of American history — May Day is another — a legacy that is now celebrated around the world is farthest from its original intent in the land of its birth. The generals have written our historical memory, in the Civil War, in most popular narratives of the bloody trail of modernizing "Western Civilization."

It’s worth remembering that the Civil War, a political division that lasted longer and was considered more intractable than today’s Palestine/Israel conflict or indefinite "War on Terror," and that killed well over a hundred times more people on American soil than the attacks of September 11, was not unanimously lauded at the time. And that women thought they could do something to prevent such bloodshed in the future.

Here is the original, pre-Hallmark, Mother’s Day Proclamation, penned in Boston by Julia Ward Howe in 1870:

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise all women who have hearts,
Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears
Say firmly:
"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of 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 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 the 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 plow 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.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions.
The great and general interests of peace.

Maybe next year.

Geov Parrish writes for

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