Herstory of Mother's Day

Mother’s Day is fast-approaching (next Sunday – May 13th) and we’d thought we’d share a little interesting history behind the day with you.

It was all the doing of one American woman who wanted to honour her own mother. Anna Jarvis organized a celebration of Mother’s Day in 1908, three years after her mother, Ann Reeves, died. Jarvis picked the second Sunday of May because it was the closest date to Reeves’ death and observances were held at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton and then in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Interestingly, while Jarvis did not have children of her own, she felt it was important to have a set day where children remember their mothers, and all the work behind the sometimes thankless role. Jarvis felt so strongly about wanting Mother’s Day recognized, she started a letter-writing campaign to every state governor. Her relentless work paid off. By 1914 US congress designated Mother’s Day as a national holiday.

The story, however, does not end there. Mother’s Day was Jarvis’s baby so to speak, so when other groups began getting in on the day’s action, it angered her. Jarvis was upset with anybody who she felt took advantage of Mother’s Day to maximize their own profits – florists, greeting-card companies, even charities such as American War Mothers that sold white carnations on Mother’s Day to raise money. Jarvis was so angry, she crashed an AWM convention to shout at its members. White carnations, after all, had been chosen by Jarvis as the day’s official flower as it was her mother’s favourite. She was arrested and charged with disturbing the peace, but was later let off. Jarvis fought her battle to the bitter end. Sadly, it was bitter, as she died blind and penniless in 1948.

Mother’s Day is now celebrated around the world. North Korea has a military parade. Mexico celebrates by having lunch with mom. North Americans typically take their mothers out to brunch. While Jarvis no doubt would have disliked all the commercial pomp around Mother’s Day, it is thanks to her that it exists in the first place.

If you’d like to learn more about the fascinating and complicated Anna Jarvis, Katharine Antolini wrote a book called Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day.