What You Didn’t Know about Mother’s Day: The Anti-War Origins of a Hallmark Holiday

Where did mothers day come from

When we think about Mother’s Day in the United States, our minds immediately go to store-bought flowers, Hallmark cards, and going out for brunch.

What many Americans might not know is that Mother’s Day was not intended as a day of affection. For early female anti-war activists, the original "Mother’s Peace Day" came in response to the horrors of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War in Europe. Poet and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe organized the celebrations for Mother’s Peace Day in Boston, Massachusetts, where it remained popular for many years. Written in 1870, her original proclamation began with the following verses:

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 with carnage, for caresses and applause.

Julia Ward Howe The Original Mother’s Day Peace Proclamation

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.

Julia Ward Howe The Original Mother’s Day Peace Proclamation

In 1907, a woman by the name of Anna Jarvis began the campaign to make Mother’s Day (without the peace) a recognized US holiday. President Woodrow Wilson officially recognized the idea in 1914, declaring Mother’s Day a “public expression of our love and reverence for our mothers.” Jarvis fought vehemently against the commercialization of the holiday, calling those who sought to profit from it “the hordes of money schemers.”

Today's Version of Mother's Day

Today’s version of Mother’s Day is different—and often far more commercialized—than its founders intended, but that is not to say that mothers do not continue to strive for peace. In Sri Lanka, mothers led by Visaka Dharmadasa formed a delegation to venture into the jungle and negotiate with the guerrillas who had abducted their sons. The Colombian organization Madres de La Candelaria provided a voice for those impacted by violence and was critical to peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC rebels. Mothers of Congo took a stand to protest violence against women and children in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. In the United States, Mothers in Charge works to prevent violence by providing a variety of mentoring, educational, and psychosocial support services.

There are so many reasons to celebrate mothers, whether for their roles as caretakers, teachers, or breadwinners. The life-sustaining roles they play—not only domestically but also geopolitically—as peacebuilders provide just one more reason to take a moment and wish them a happy Mother’s Day.