What you ought to know about the subversive roots of Mother's Day
This Mother’s Day, let’s remember the radical roots of this holiday. You know, before Hallmark Cards Incorporated took over and made it all pink ribbons and expensive greeting cards …
Mother’s Day was first celebrated in 1908 by a young Christian activist in West Virginia, Anna Jarvis, who wanted to honor the legacy of her own mother, Ann - known as Mother Jarvis - who had passed away 3 years earlier.
Mother Jarvis was a pacifist who cared for wounded soldiers on BOTH sides of the American Civil War. This kind of radical enemy-love was rare - and considered dangerous - but deeply impacted young Anna in her understanding of the faith.
And Mother Jarvis’ activism didn’t stop there. She worked to mobilize a movement of Mother’s Day Work Clubs. These “Work Clubs” were pretty subversive. They organized women to fight for clean water and sanitation in their own communities. Mother Jarvis also worked for universal access to medicine for the poor.
As I was researching the history of Mother’s Day, I was struck by the parallels with life for mothers here in Cambodian slums - where clean water and sanitation are a huge issue. And families are often survivors of violence.
In our second slum community, the neighbors had all seen the flashy TV ads by corporations, like Nestle, selling milk powder. There were no government regulations limiting what could be claimed in these ads, so they were able to make outlandish and false claims in their pursuit of profits.
Our neighbors came to believe that their newborn infants would be smarter, fatter, and healthier drinking milk powder instead of breast milk.
The only problem was that in our community, like in slums all across the world, we didn’t have easy access to clean drinking water. Most of the young mothers would mix up a bottle of expensive milk powder using dirty water and their babies would soon be miserable with diarrhea.
Sadly, many of these babies would soon die of dehydration, malnutrition and other complications. Each year around half a million children die from diarrhea around the world. Diarrhea is the second leading cause of death in children under five years old.
It is both preventable and treatable.
When my wife, Nay, became pregnant with our second child, we realized we had a great opportunity to demonstrate the importance of breastfeeding. Nay made it clear to the neighbors that she would be exclusively breastfeeding our newborn girl for the first six months. They were incredulous!
The weeks and months passed, and before the neighbors’ watchful eyes, our daughter grew into a huge, healthy butterball of a baby – drinking nothing but breast milk. From that point onwards the use of milk powder in our slum decreased dramatically.
But what of other slums and impoverished mothers throughout the nation?
We grappled with the same questions that Mother Jarvis, the founder of the Mother’s Day Work Clubs grappled with. Our own grassroots work could only reach so many, which is the fundamental challenge of most charitable initiatives. We needed broader impact.
We realized that change was needed on a national level. So, as part of a coalition of health NGO’s, my colleagues lobbied the government to reign in corporate advertising of milk powder.
Later that year, a law was passed in Cambodia, limiting milk powder promotion and as a result, literally thousands of newborn lives have been saved. Others have worked on clean water and sanitation issues with significant progress.
Charity alleviates the effects of poverty – treating diarrhea in milk-powder-fed babies for example. While justice seeks to eliminate the root causes of that sickness – in this case misleading corporate advertising and a lack of access to clean water for all. We need BOTH charity (or mercy) and justice.
But at its worst, charity becomes a substitute for justice, when it should merely be a stop-gap measure:
In many places, temporary homeless shelters have become a substitute for a housing sector that includes affordable housing for the poor.
Food banks and soup kitchens have become a substitute for a liveable minimum wage that allows people to purchase nutritious food with their own earnings.
After-school tutoring has become a substitute for an education system that works for everyone.
Free clinics have become a substitute for affordable nationwide healthcare that the poor and unemployed can access when necessary.
Mother Jarvis knew that the optimism of many towards charity as a replacement for government intervention is severely misguided.
Yes - we need both. But a society that has more justice is a society that needs less charity.
Rather than applying yet another Band-Aid, let’s take our inspiration from Mother Jarvis and address the underlying cancer, which is widespread injustice and inequality.
Moses didn’t ask Pharoah for more food and medicines for the slaves, he insisted on complete freedom. And this Mother’s Day - we must continue to insist on justice and freedom for those most affected by our unjust systems and structures.
In doing so we will honor the legacy of the woman who inspired it all - Mother Jarvis.
By the way, her daughter Anna Jarvis was an activist herself and she was NOT pleased with how Mother’s Day quickly got hijacked. Hallmark Cards had started selling Mother's Day cards and Jarvis believed that they had exploited the idea of Mother's Day.
She organized boycotts of Mother's Day, and threatened lawsuits against the companies involved. Jarvis argued that people should appreciate their mothers through handwritten letters expressing their love and gratitude, instead of buying gifts and pre-made cards. She even protested at a candy makers' convention in Philadelphia in 1923.
Later Suffragists adopted Mother’s Day as an opportunity to encourage pastors to devote their May Sunday sermons to supporting suffrage from the pulpit.
The suffragists, and their fellow activists, Anna and Mother Jarvis, were just the latest in a long line of radical women of faith. An inspirational and subversive foundation for the Mother’s Day celebration we know today.
I leave you with this prayer from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, celebrating some of the women of faith who have served Jesus by fighting for justice throughout history…
A Litany to Honor Women
We walk in the company of the women who have gone before, Mothers of the faith both named and unnamed, Testifying with ferocity and faith to the Spirit of Wisdom and Healing.
They are the judges, the prophets, the martyrs, the warriors, poets, lovers and Saints who are near to us in the shadow of awareness, in the crevices of memory, in the landscape of our dreams..
We walk in the company of Deborah, who judged the Israelites with authority and strength.
We walk in the company of Esther, who used her position as Queen to ensure the welfare of her people.
We walk in the company of you whose names have been lost and silenced, who kept and cradled the wisdom of the ages.
We walk in the company of the woman with the flow of blood, who audaciously sought her healing and release.
We walk in the company of Mary Magdalene, who wept at the empty tomb until the risen Christ appeared.
We walk in the company of Phoebe, who led an early church in the empire of Rome.
We walk in the company of Perpetua of Carthage, whose witness in the third century led to her martyrdom.
We walk in the company of Saint Christina the Astonishing, who resisted death with persistence and wonder.
We walk in the company of Julian of Norwich, who wed imagination and theology proclaiming "all shall be well."
We walk in the company of Sojourner Truth, who stood against oppression, righteously declaring "ain't I a woman!" in 1852.
We walk in the company of the Argentine Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who turned their grief to strength, standing together to remember "the disappeared" children of war with a holy indignation.
We walk in the company of Alice Walker, who named the lavender hue of womanish strength.
We walk in the company of you Mothers of the faith, who teach us to resist evil with boldness, to lead with wisdom, and to heal.