Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there! And to everyone.
I’ve just learned from the historian Heather Cox Richardson that the original version of the holiday was called Mothers’ Day, with the apostrophe on the end. A subtle yet important alteration. It had a very different purpose than today’s iteration, and both are worth keeping in mind.
Conceived by writer and activist Julia Ward Howe amidst the early women’s suffrage movement, the first Mothers’ Day in the 1870s was designed around the political empowerment of women. Her ultimate aim? An end to all war.
This was after a decade which had seen two of the most destructive conflicts ever, the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian war, both of which ushered in horrors at a scale nobody could previously imagine, and put an end to that era's fantastical notions of heroic and dignified battle. (Although the Civil War at least was fought for a noble cause on the Union side, the fighting itself was hardly anything to celebrate.)
Who had started, prosecuted, and prolonged these bloody wars? Men, nobody but men. The men who controlled the striving of nations had, it seemed… how can I put this delicately… fucked everything up.
Meanwhile, while men were away fighting and dying at Antietam and Gettysburg—and not the same men who sat in Washington issuing commands or hid away in their mansions, I have to point out—women took on all sorts of societal roles that men had rarely allowed them to perform before, and they handled themselves just fine.
It was this sense of empowerment that fueled the suffrage movement. Mothers’ Day was meant to remind women of their power, and to demonstrate what was at stake if they did not insist on wielding it. We’d all continue to be stuck in the unjust, violent society that men had created for us.
I find this message resonant today. It sounds a little reductive to blame men for everything, but what has really changed? We still have not managed to elect anyone other than a man to lead our country. Our still-male-dominated society continues to repeat so many of the mistakes of the past, and it ignores the obvious dangers of the future. On top of it all, an emboldened corps of reactionaries (not all men, but close enough) has seized control of our highest court and prepares to set women’s rights back half a century.
Women are not just mothers, despite what those who wish to control their bodies would have us believe. At the same time, for plenty of women, being a mother is a crucial role. It's a role that affords a unique perspective on the value of preserving life. That’s what Howe believed.
I’m not trying to say that men can’t understand peace, or that they are inherently destructive. All humans are born with both masculine and feminine aspects. But mothers are physically tapped into the miracle of life in a way that nobody else can be. They understand the cost of war better than anyone.
We may think we’re more sophisticated than the people of the 1870s. Those wars that, at the time, symbolized the horror of modernity, now appear quaint to us. They're barely discernable photographs of wheeled cannons and squared-off felt hats. The age of mass media was just beginning. A lot has changed about war (and the world) since then, but the imagined necessity of it has not. We’re still hopelessly reliant on it. We accept the way it relentlessly squanders life, and we're blind to the way it fails to solve any problems. In all this time, we haven’t come up with any better ideas. Maybe that’s partly because it’s still largely men who have the power to set wars in motion.
I hope that on this Mother’s Day, in addition to honoring our own mothers, we can also honor the principles of motherhood, foremost among which is the sanctity of life.
In the U.S., that latter phrase has been co-opted by the anti-women’s rights movement. But a true sanctity of life respects the freedom of all living beings. That includes both the freedom to control their own bodies and freedom from violence. This ought to be basic stuff. If we can’t get that right, I despair that we’ll ever find a way to achieve the further freedom of truly shared political power.
I don’t know whether or not that will happen, but I do know that it’s worth struggling for.
I have a few different projects in the works, none of which are at the point of being ready to share. I’ll keep you posted.
A couple small things for now. First, in addition to configuring these emails to go out via my custom domain, I’ve also set up my archives to be hosted there. In case you ever want to share them with anyone, there’s now a snappy URL you can hand out. I’d be grateful, of course!
Also, I was honored to discover that World History Encyclopedia has turned my article about Julia Domna into a YouTube video! This is good reinforcement, and I plan to write another article for them in the future.