(WOMENSENEWS)–In 1914, the world was at war. Woodrow Wilson was in the White House. And women, who had set aside their demands for enfranchisement in the interests of national unity during large and small conflicts since the middle of the 19th century, refused to do so again.

Suffrage parades and demonstrations intensified, with Wilson the main target. What did the President do? He declared the second Sunday in May a holiday honoring the country’s mothers.

If this was a bone thrown to the female sex, it didn’t work, for suffrage militancy only increased. But the heritage of Mother’s Day–sentimental greeting cards and flowers–betrays the real origins of the holiday, which lie in pacifism and feminism.

A Southern Tradition

Mother’s Work Days were a southern tradition, begun during the Civil War, when female brigades assembled to improve community sanitation. In 1868, Anna M. (“Mother”) Jarvis of West Virginia transformed the tradition into Mother’s Friendship Day, organizing women to bridge the gap and ease the tensions between north and south. After she died, her daughter held annual church services in Mother Jarvis’ honor.

Department store impresario John Wannamaker saw the commercial possibilities and sponsored the younger Jarvis. Capitalizing on the white carnations she distributed, he sold those flowers and other gifts in his store.

In the post Civil War years, poet Julia Ward Howe, famous for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” feminist, Abolitionist and pacifist, was on the same path Mother Jarvis trod. In 1870, denied permission to speak at an international peace conference because she was female, she rented a theater and called her own meeting, She went home to Boston to organize Mother’s Day for Peace, proclaiming that “We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.” City after city adopted the tradition.

Mother’s Day is again becoming an occasion for protest. In 1992, the Women’s Action Coalition draped a banner over the arrivals board in New York’s Grand Central Station that said: “It’s Mother’s Day: $30 Billion Owed Mothers In Child Support.”

This year, echoes of Jarvis and Howe resound as, in the wake of military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, women’s organizations like Code Pink are the flashpoints for celebrating the day with peace demonstrations across the country.

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.” She can be reached at [email protected]

For more information:

Code Pink: Women for Peace:

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