Sunday, May 13, 2012

Julia Ward Howe and That First Call for a Mother’s Day

Julia Ward Howe about 1870

A militant abolitionist, Julia Ward Howe is best remembered for the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic, to which a generation of young men marched to their death in the Civil War.  She spent the rest of her long life as a champion of many causes and of social justice.  But having seen firsthand the dreadful slaughter of war—even a just war in a righteous cause—she dedicated her greatest energies in preventing war.

The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 caused her to attempt to mobilize women around the world for peace.  She called for June 10th to be celebrated annually as Mothers’ Peace Day.  Her proclamation of the day, characteristically in verse went as follows: 

Arise then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
"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.
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."

From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe our dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
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 as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace...
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God -
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.

The proclamation failed in its original mission.  No movement of  mothers arose to end wars.  But it was never entirely forgotten.  It was resurrected by the anti-war movement of the 1960’s, embraced by a new generation of feminists, and especially celebrated by her faith tradition Unitarian Universalists.

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