The Women (and Men) Behind Mother's Day

The origins of Mother’s Day as celebrated in the United States date back to the 19th century with Mother’s Day becoming an official national holiday in 1914. An effort led by Anna Jarvis, daughter of Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, a social activist and community organizer during the American Civil War era.

Ann Reeves Jarvis helped start “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to teach local women how to care for their children. These clubs became a unifying force in a region of the country still divided over the Civil War. In 1868 Jarvis organized “Mothers’ Friendship Day,” where mothers gathered with former Union and Confederate soldiers to promote reconciliation.

As with most movements, Ann and Anna Jarvis weren't the only women behind the mission of recognizing mothers. Abolitionist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe in wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” a call to action that asked mothers to unite in promoting world peace. Juliet Calhoun Blakely, a temperance activist inspired a local Mother’s Day in Albion, Michigan, in the 1870s. Mary Towles Sasseen and Frank Hering, also worked to organize a Mothers’ Day in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some even called Hering “the father of Mothers’ Day.”

Mother's Day Becomes a National Holiday

Following her mother’s 1905 death, Anna Jarvis promoted Mother’s Day as a way of honoring the sacrifices mothers made for their children. After gaining financial backing from a Philadelphia department store owner, Anna organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church in West Virginia. That same day also saw thousands of people attend a Mother’s Day event at one of Wanamaker’s retail stores in Philadelphia.

Following the success of her first Mother’s Day and arguing that American holidays were biased toward male achievements, Anna—who remained unmarried and childless her whole life— started campaigning for the adoption of a holiday honoring motherhood. By 1912 many states, towns and churches had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual holiday, and Anna had established the Mother’s Day International Association to promote her cause.

Anna's persistence paid off in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure officially establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Be careful What You Wish For

Anna's original vision for Mother’s Day was a day of personal celebration between mothers and families, involving wearing a white carnation and visiting one’s mother. But once Mother’s Day became a national holiday, commercial institutions capitalized on the opportunity. Anna became disillusioned with the commercialization of the holiday and started publicly denouncing it and urging people to stop buying gifts.

Eventually she resorted to an open campaign against Mother’s Day profiteers, speaking out against confectioners, florists and even charities. She also launched countless lawsuits against groups that had used the name “Mother’s Day,” eventually spending most of her personal wealth in legal fees. By the time of her death Jarvis had disowned the holiday altogether, and actively lobbied to see it removed from the American calendar.

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