The Word Nerd: Feminist organized first Mother’s Day in 1908

Thanks to the efforts of American Ann Jarvis, Mother’s Day began as a way of honouring the sacrifices Mothers made for their children.

After gaining financial support from a Philadelphia department store owner named John Wanamaker
in May 1908, she organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia. That same day, a well-attended Mother’s Day event was held at one of Wanamaker’s retail stores in Philadelphia.

Canada quickly picked up on its southern neighbour’s initiative, and inaugurated Mother’s Day in 1909.

Following the success of her first Mother’s Day, Jarvis, although never married and childless, resolved to see her holiday added to the calendar roster. An early feminist, she argued that American holidays were biased toward male achievements, so she started a letter writing campaign to newspapers and politicians urging the adoption of a special day honouring motherhood. By 1912 many states, towns and churches had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual holiday, and Jarvis had established the Mother’s Day International Association to help promote her cause. Her persistence was rewarded in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill establishing the second
Sunday in May as Mother’s Day in the USA.

Jarvis had originally conceived of Mother’s Day as a day of personal celebration between Mothers and their families. Her version of the day involved wearing a white carnation as a badge and visiting one’s mother or attending church services. But once Mother’s Day became a national holiday, it was not long before many mercantile concerns capitalized on its popularity.

By 1920 Jarvis became so disgusted by the crass commercialization of the holiday that she urged people to stop buying Mother’s Day paraphernalia. She also launched several lawsuits against groups that had used the name “Mother’s Day,” eventually spending most of her personal wealth on legal fees. Jarvis disowned the holiday altogether and, up until her death in 1948, actively lobbied the government to have it removed from the American Calendar.

Celebrations of Mothers and motherhood can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who held festivals in honour of the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele. The clearest precedent for modern Mother’s Day is the early Christian festival known as “Mothering Sunday.” Once a major tradition in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe, this celebration fell on the fourth Sunday in Lent and was originally seen as a time when believers would return
to their local “mother church” for a special service.

Over time the Mothering Sunday tradition changed into a more secular holiday, and children would present their mothers with flowers and other gifts. This custom eventually faded in popularity before merging with the American Mother’s Day in the 1930s and 1940s. Due to its religious connections, Mother’s Day in the United Kingdom still falls on the fourth Sunday of Lent which this year was celebrated on March 6.

At times, Mother’s Day has also been a date for launching political or feminist causes. In 1968 Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King, used Mother’s Day to host a march in support of underprivileged women and children. In the 1970s women’s groups also used the holiday as a time to highlight the need for equal rights and access to childcare.

Perspicacious readers may have noticed that most languages seem to have a word for Mother that is either ‘mama’, or has a nasal sound like ‘nana’: Arabic ahm, Chechen nana, Greek mana, and Quechua mama. The reason for this was discerned by pioneering Russian-American linguist Roman Jakobson. The easiest vowel sound for babies
to utter is ‘ah’ because it can be made without doing anything with the tongue or lips. And when babies close their lips, as is done in nursing, this transforms the ‘ah’ sounds into ‘mahs.’ Of course the baby isn’t really speaking, but it sounds to adults as if the baby is addressing someone, most likely the Mother. Naturally, Mom takes ‘mama’ as meaning her, and when speaking to her baby refers to herself as ‘mama.’

As Mother’s Day is now celebrated in over forty countries, let me wish all Mothers a joyous day on Sunday, May 8, wherever they may dwell.

Howard’s latest book Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit will be launched at Crowley Arts Centre, 5325 Crowley, May 24. Join Howard between 6 and 8:30 for refreshments.

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