“Before the brunches, before the gifts and greeting cards, Mother’s Day was a time for mourning women to remember fallen soldiers and work for peace.
When the holiday went commercial, its greatest champion gave everything to fight it, dying penniless and broken in a sanitarium. Of course, Mother’s Day marched on without her and is today celebrated, in various forms, on a global scale.
As early as the 1850s, West Virginia women’s organizer Ann Reeves Jarvis held Mother’s Day work clubs to improve sanitary conditions and try to lower infant mortality by fighting disease and curbing milk contamination, according to historian Katharine Antolini of West Virginia Wesleyan College.
The groups also tended wounded soldiers of both sides during the U.S. Civil War from 1861 to 1865, she added.
In the postwar years Jarvis and other women organized Mother’s Friendship Day picnics and other events as pacifist events uniting former foes. Julia Ward Howe, for one—best known as the composer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—issued a widely read “Mother’s Day Proclamation” in 1870, calling for women to take an active political role in promoting peace.
Around the same time, Jarvis had initiated a Mothers’ Friendship Day for Union and Confederate loyalists across her state. But it was her daughter Anna who was most responsible for what we call Mother’s Day—and who would spend most of her later life fighting what it had become.”