Sunday, May 10, 2020

Julia Ward Howe and the First Mothers’ Day Proclamation—A Disrupted Heritage

Peace organizations have used Julia Ward Howe's Proclamation  with material like this circulated by the Peace Alliance.

The usual touching Mother's Day services will have to be held virtually for Congregations across the U.S.A today.  If mothers are not the topic of the sermon or homily, they are sure to be remembered in prayer, sung to or about, and honored in some way.  Unitarian Universalist congregations will be among the most enthusiastic celebrants.  An in scores of those congregations this morning the sermon will credit Julia Ward Howe’s 1870 Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World a/k/a the Mothers Peace Day Proclamation as the authentic origin of the American observation.  Some will completely ignore Anna Jarvis, the West Virginia spinster who spent her life campaigning to establish an annual Day honoring mothers and then defending it from rampant commercialization.  Worse yet some ministers will actually denounce Jarvis as a fraud and the usurper of a crown that rightly should rest on Howe’s brow.
It is understandable, Howe, most famous as the author of the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic and the most popular female poet in the country, was one of our own—a life-long Unitarian.  Moreover, she was a social justice hero—not only an abolitionist but a women’s suffrage and rights advocate and a peace activist.   And the pacifism reflected in her declaration is highly valued and admired by many modern UUs.
The trouble is that although the Proclamation attracted wide attention and comment in both the U.S. and Europe it did not result in any action.  There never was a strike for peace by mothers.  No observance was organized anywhere.  It turned out to be a fine flight of rhetoric but a blind alley leading nowhere.

Anna Jarvis of West Virgina was the true Mother of Mother's Day
When Anna Jarvis began her ultimately successful crusade to honor mothers, she made no mention of Ward or her Proclamation.  Her celebration had no political or social agenda whatsoever.  It was entirely about sentimental adoration.
Despite this there are distinguished U.U. ministers with more impressive letters stringing out behind their names than you can shake a stick at will tell the folks in the pews that they are Facetiming Mom to brunch after church because of Julia Ward Howe.
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 to 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: 

Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World

Again, in the sight of the Christian world, have the skill and power of two great nations exhausted themselves in mutual murder. Again have the sacred questions of international justice been committed to the fatal mediation of military weapons. In this day of progress, in this century of light, the ambition of rulers has been allowed to barter the dear interests of domestic life for the bloody exchanges of the battle field. Thus men have done. Thus men will do. But women need no longer be made a party to proceedings which fill the globe with grief and horror. Despite the assumptions of physical force, the mother has a sacred and commanding word to say to the sons who owe their life to her suffering. That word should now be heard, and answered to as never before.

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.

Julia Ward Howe
The memory of Howe’s words would wax and wane with public sentiment  about war—revived as pacifism—and isolationism—thrived during periods of war weariness and forgotten if not vigorously erased when patriotic fever worked up a bloodlust for war.  Nobody but that iconoclast Mark Twain brought it up during the Spanish American War.  
When Woodrow Wilson made Anna Jarvis’s celebration a national holiday by proclamation to be celebrated annually on the second  Sunday in May, he was aware of Howe’s declaration and was worried that some might try to graft its pacifism onto the new holiday.  So he tried to wrap honoring Mothers with patriotism, as if mothers elsewhere did not deserve the veneration as nurturers of patriots.  He added the stipulation that the day should be celebrated with displays of the Stars and Stripes, a jingoistic touch never mentioned or advocated for by Jarvis.
During both World Wars I and II and the Red Scares and hysteria that followed them Howe’s Proclamation was virtually suppressed.  It remained obscure during the Cold War and almost faded to a neglected footnote.

Another Mother for Peace, most famous for this iconic poster, used JuliaWard Howe's Proclamation during the Vietnam Era.
During the Vietnam War it was somewhat resurrected by the women’s organization Another Mother For Peace and by both Quaker and Catholic peace activists.
It really spread like wildfire in UU circles in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the ramp-up of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Pacifism and/or anti-war activism was popular and spreading rapidly through both clergy and members in the pews.  Many of the sermons preached today were based on widely circulated articles printed then.  And Howe gave credibility to those who were then trying to get the UUA to declare itself a Peace Church.
That effort ultimately failed, but Howe and Mother’s Peace Day have found new advocates. 

The Black Lives of UU's Mother's Day bail out campaign had become an annual event.
Recently, however, Mothers Day took on new meaning.  Black Lives of UU  issued an extraordinary challenge  in response the crisis of mass incarceration that leaves many mothers separated from their children because of the hostage extortion of high cash bail which is levied disproportionately against women of color and often for minor and non-violent offenses.  In the wake of the White Supremacy Teach-in which over 500 UU congregations have held in 2017, they are asked those congregations—and others—to pledge $5000 each to a national fund to bail mothers out of jail.   That effort fell short—five grand  was a lot of money for most moderately sized congregations—but a considerable amount was raised and the campaign has been renewed every year.

Front line maternity ward medical staff bring comfort to new moms who had to give birth without the partners and families during  Coronavirus quarenteen.
This year the shadow of the Coronavirus will make the sacrifices of mothers on the front lines of the medical emergency, the moms at home juggling work and  children’s educations, and the frail and/or dying elder mothers cut off from the comfort of the human contact with their families all the more poignant.
Both Howe and Jarvis could have agreed on that.

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