Nations have a habit of sanctifying people and events that might otherwise disturb the system by cleaning them up so that their memories actually celebrate and promote the status quo, especially its business. When President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed May 9, 1914, the first Mother’s Day, asking Americans on that day to give a public “thank you” to their (and all) mothers, the holiday was sanitized so it wouldn’t challenge our socio-economic system but actually further its consumerism.
Activist, writer and poet Julia Ward Howe first proposed the idea of an official celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States in 1872. She was best known for her famous Civil War song, “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
In response to the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, Howe proposed that June 2nd be celebrated annually as Mother’s Day so that on that day mothers could rally to end all war. In Boston in 1870, in a “Mother’s Day Proclamation” — which would never make it onto a Mother’s Day card — she set the stage for the holiday by appealing to women to leave their housework for a day in order to stand up against the forces that send men off to kill each other.
Her proclamation read:
Arise, then, Christian 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 great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall 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, women of one country, will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs …”
As men have often forsaken the plow 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 time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God …
Howe initiated a Mothers’ Peace Day observance on the second Sunday in June in Boston and held that meeting for a number of years. She worked tirelessly championing the cause of an official celebration of Mother’s Day.
The holiday caught on years later when a West Virginia women’s group led by community activist Anna Reeves Jarvis began promoting it as a way to reunite families after the Civil War. After Jarvis’ death, her daughter devoted much of her life to a campaign for the creation of an official Mother’s Day in honor of peace.
Jarvis’s idea spread, replaced by the Mother’s Day holiday celebrated each May. That culminated in President Wilson’s less radical proclamation that put mothers back in their homemaking place.
Jarvis remained strongly opposed to every aspect of the holiday’s commercialization, was actually arrested for protesting the sale of flowers, and petitioned to stop the creation of a Mother’s Day postage stamp. But the holiday flourished, along with flower sales.
The business journal Florists’ Review actually admitted: “This was a holiday that could be exploited.” And when Jarvis was removed by the police after protesting the sale of white carnations at a 1930s meeting of the American War Mothers, the Florists’ Review crowed: “Miss Jarvis was completely squelched.”
Martin Luther King Jr. Day has similarly tamed memories of King’s message so as not to threaten the socio-economic system. Today it focuses on individuals accepting and tolerating one other.
“I Have a Dream” is used to take the pressure off of institutional and economic exploitation. Seldom, if ever, will the words King spoke before the Memphis garbage workers’ strike be heard, or his famous condemnations of the Vietnam War and America’s whole war-profiting machine.
How often have we heard the untamed King on the day he is honored? Certainly not when corporate sponsorships are involved.
Missing, for example would be:
We must honestly admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged small hearted men to become cold and conscienceless so that, like Dives before Lazarus, they are unmoved by suffering, poverty-stricken humanity… The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cut-throat competition and selfish ambition that inspires men to be more I-centered than thou-centered.
No group knew the devastation Ronald Reagan was bringing down upon gay people better than ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). Today they’re even being fondly remembered while back then it was the extremely radical actions they did that drew attention to the deaths around them, offended the mainstream establishment, and scared the medical and political community into doing something
People are dying and nothing is being done, they screamed. Drug companies are only interested in profiting from the plague and politicians want gay people to go away, they shouted. “Silence,” they knew, “equals death.”
Even the mainstream LGBTQ+ community looked down on their tactics. But it became clear that their radical actions could only be tamed if people started listening.
The establishment got scared then. Today they act as if they were always on board, but that’s the tamed version.
And as society continues to tame groups that threaten the system, including some LGBTQ+ movements, the historical reality is that the most radical groups and people are responsible for forcing causes upon us. Their radicalism has often been the reason why the system has listened to more moderate voices in an attempt to tame those who could otherwise force more basic changes that could really transform our system into one that at its heart is people-oriented, not profit-oriented.
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Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.