The approach of Mother’s Day 2017 reminds me of the 19th-century peace origins of this holiday. In our hurting, broken world, may re-telling part of this story bring us hope and inspiration as we honor our mothers and the women who have nurtured us, past and present. In that vein, a special shout out to my dear mother-in-law, Helen Wolter! Definitely one of our earth angels.
Additionally, I share part of my May 2014 blog, “Foremothers and Mothers of Peace: 19th-Century Message Continuing into the 21st Century.” Julia Ward Howe proposed Mother’s Day as a way to stop war and bring peace to our world. My biographical figure, L. Maria Child, knew Ward and spoke highly of her and peace as a way of life.
Origins of Mother’s Day
At the end of the Civil War, 19th-century author and reformer, Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), along with almost every other American woman (and man), had heavy hearts. The loss of husbands and sons in this horrible war seemed inconsolable. They did not want their nation or the world to ever again experience this kind of loss and trauma.
Consequently, in 1870, Howe sent out a plea:
Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with 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.
She went on to call on all women to gather together to demand peace in our world:
As men have often forsaken the plough 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 solemnly take counsel with each other ….
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 someplace deemed most convenient
And 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.
Howe’s earnest plea planted the seeds for what we now know as Mother’s Day.
Julia Ward Howe’s Sister Reformer: L. Maria Child
I try to imagine how fellow women’s hearts stirred upon hearing Ms. Howe’s vital oration. My dissertation figure, L. Maria Child, knew her. In an 1870 letter to friend Eliza Scudder, Maria remarked: “Mrs. Howe talks sensibly and philosophically, and her manner is lady-like and dignified…” (488). In like manner to Howe, Maria was an influential activist and author, both roles spanning her entire adult life.
While Maria acquiesced to the need for violence in the Civil War in order to end slavery, she never relinquished her commitment to peace principles. She discussed this with friend Joseph Dugdale in 1870:
On the subject of Peace my sentiments have known no change, except a deepening conviction of the wickedness, barbarism, and insane foolishness of war. … It is assumed that war settles questions of right; but the plain truth is, that nothing is ever settled by physical force. The settling has to be done afterward, by mutual treaties and laws; and it would be wiser, and cheaper, and far more kindly, to settle disputes in that way, with the omission of the monstrous prelude of blowing out one another’s brains (492-3).
She gave Christianity high praise for proclaiming the peace message: “War is so manifestly discordant with the Christian religion….For myself, I regard them [precepts of Christianity] as prophetic of the highest attainments of human nature… [which help] the fulfillment of that high prophecy, ‘Peace one earth and good will toward men” (493).
This founding story is heart wrenching with its origins in the heavy losses of the Civil War. In our day and age, many feel a deep fear, sadness, and mournfulness. As with our 19th-century foremothers, may we transform these feelings into thought and action on the road to peace for ourselves, our loved ones, and our dear world.