A brief history of Mother’s Day

by Ken Sehested

Mother’s Day is celebrated in many cultures. Although others are given credit for founding the observance, Julia Ward Howe led in establishing what some believe to be the first observance of Mother’s Day in the U.S. (2 June 1872) after witnessing the carnage of the U.S. Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War in Europe. The Mother’s Day festival, she wrote, “should be devoted to the advocacy of peace doctrines.”

Born in New York City in 1819, Howe—author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”—was a published poet, author, and advocate of better treatment for prisoners and those living with mental and physical disabilities.

Howe’s concept of Mother’s Day was considerably different from today’s celebration. Her idea was to mobilize women as agents of resistance against the policies that led to injustice and war. In her Reminiscences she wrote: “Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of human life which they alone bear and know the cost?” Realizing it would require fundamental change to end war, she later wrote: “Let the fact of human brotherhood be taught to the babe in the cradle, let it be taught to the despot on the throne. Let it be the basis and foundation of education and legislation. . . .”

The final observance of Howe’s version of Mother’s Day was held in Riverton, New Jersey, on June 1, 1912. The printed invitation on that occasion noted that “this festival . . . is a time for women and children to come together; to . . . speak, sing and pray for ‘those things that make for peace.’”

Parallel efforts to establish a regular observance in honor of mothers were made by several others. Mary Towles Sassen, a Kentucky school teacher, started conducting Mother’s Day celebrations in 1887. Frank E. Hering of Indiana launched a campaign for the observance in 1904. Also in 1904, Anna Jarvis, regularly credited as the founder of the observance, began her campaign for a nationwide commemoration. She chose the second Sunday in May and began the custom of wearing a flower.

On May 9, 1914, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson signed a joint resolution of Congress recommending that Congress and the executive departments observe Mother’s Day. The next year, the President was authorized to proclaim Mother’s Day as an annual national observance.


Information for this history was drawn from material created by Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament Education Fund.

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org