(WOMENSENEWS)–The year 1915 saw militant suffrage activism escalate. Outside the White House, mobs howled and picketers were hauled off to jail. In this atmosphere, President Woodrow Wilson declared a national holiday to honor the country’s mothers. Why then? A bone thrown to women? A distraction from carnage of World War I? Whatever Wilson’s motives, the current holiday, awash in commercialism and sentimentality, has lost its original connection between motherhood and pacifism.

There are two versions of the holiday’s history: Mother’s Work Days were a southern tradition, meant to improve community sanitation, carried out by female brigades during the Civil War. In 1868, Anna M. (“Mother”) Jarvis of West Virginia transformed the tradition into Mother’s Friendship Day, aiming to use women to ease tensions between North and South. After she died, her daughter held a church service honoring mothers and distributing the white carnations that have endured as a symbol of purity and motherhood. Department store impresario John Wanamaker apparently saw the commercial possibilities and sponsored the younger Jarvis to run the Mother’s Day International Association until Congress and President Wilson made the holiday official.

Julia Ward Howe, who had written “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” grew horrified by the carnage of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. In 1870, denied permission to speak at an international peace conference because she was female, she rented a theater and called her own meeting, condemning the ambition of rulers who “barter the dear interests of domestic life for the bloody exchange of the battlefield.” Back home, she organized Mother’s Peace Day in Boston, a tradition adopted in city after city.

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand on: Women as Agents of Change.”