The Founder of Mother’s Day Mostly Cared About Her Own Mother

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Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.It seems like such a simple idea: a day to honor the women who bring life into the world. But  how do we square the ideal of celebrating and supporting mothers with the reality of how lawmakers and courts have acted to undermine maternal health and rights in the post-Dobbs era? Or make sense of all the money Americans spend annually on this one day—a purported $33.5 billion in 2024, according to the National Federation of Retailers, including $7 billion on jewelry and $3.2 billion on flowers—when so many mothers can’t afford food, housing, or health care? 
Anna Jarvis, who launched the Mother’s Day movement in 1908 in honor of her own remarkable mother, would have had very complicated feelings about what the day has become, says Katharine Lane Antolini, associate professor of American history at West Virginia Wesleyan College and author of Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day. Jarvis’s vision was childlike in its sentimentality, Antolini says: “To her, this was supposed to be the one day out of the year when you were just grateful for your mother.” But there was nothing sentimental about the way she fought to preserve that vision, whether she was battling the floral industry, Big Candy, or well-intentioned maternal health charities and the powerful people who supported them. I spoke with Antolini from her campus office in Buckhannon, West Virginia, about 40 minutes from the International Mother’s Day Shrine and Jarvis’s childhood home.
How did the idea of a day to honor mothers become such a focus of Anna Jarvis’ life?
The story of Mother’s Day really goes back to her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, who was a well-known social activist and community organizer during her time. They lived in the part of Virginia that split off during the Civil War to become West Virginia, part of the Union. Mrs. Jarvis had 13 children, only four of whom lived to adulthood. Anna, who was born in 1864, was the oldest surviving daughter. She never married or had children. She was never a mother herself. And that, I think, is an important part of her story.
In the 1850s, before Anna was born, it was very common for mothers in this part of Appalachia to die in childbirth and for babies to die. Poor sanitation was a major cause of death. Mrs. Jarvis organized what she called Mothers’ Day Work Clubs, where women would come together to educate themselves on issues of sanitation: what to do with sewage, where to put your outhouse so it wouldn’t contaminate your water supply or the milk from your cows. If there was a mini epidemic, they would help quarantine a family, bring them food, and help care for the sick. Mrs. Jarvis believed in a proactive kind of motherhood—in the book, I refer to it as “social motherhood,” where being a mother does not just mean taking care of your own children. You are caring for your community of children. By the time of the Civil War, these clubs were so well known that, according to local legend, a Union colonel asked Mrs. Jarvis if she could help the Union camps stop the outbreaks of disease that were killing so many soldiers. So, according to the story, Mrs. Jarvis organized mothers to help care for and stop the spread of diseases in the camps. 

Fast forward to the 1870s. Anna Jarvis is 12 years old. She’s standing outside a room where her mother is teaching one of her famous Sunday school lessons on mothers of the Bible. According to Anna, at the end of the lesson, Mrs. Jarvis offers a prayer of hope that somebody someday will create a day to honor mothers for their service. And as Anna tells it, her mother’s prayer sticks in her head. Thirty years later, in May 1905, Mrs. Jarvis dies in Philadelphia, where she had been living with Anna and two of her other children. And Anna decides, I’m going to dedicate my life to promoting my mother’s vision of a day honoring mothers. 
It’s such a noble idea. And yet, from the beginning, there was real tension about whose vision of motherhood was being honored. As it turned out, Anna and her mother probably would have had very different ideas of what Mother’s Day should be.
Mrs. Jarvis saw motherhood as a community responsibility. She envisioned a Mother’s Day when women would come together as mothers and be of service to each other. 
Anna Jarvis was not a mother. So she didn’t see motherhood through the same lens that her mother did. She saw motherhood through the eyes of a child. When you’re a child, the only mother you care about is your own. So Anna Jarvis’s Mother’s Day was very sentimental. It wasn’t a day to celebrate all mothers, it was a day for you to celebrate your mother—the mother as the center of a child’s world.
People ask me all the time, where do you put the apostrophe? Is it singular or plural? Anna’s idea was for a Mother’s Day, possessive singular. Her mother’s vision was more like Mothers’ Day—possessive plural. 
Anna Jarvis was obsessed with turning Mother’s Day into a movement. But she was also obsessed with having it be her movement. 
When Anna created her day, it was the second Sunday in May, because that was the closest Sunday to the anniversary of her mother’s death [on May 9]. She picked her mother’s favorite flower, the white carnation, as the symbol of the holiday. Her whole identity was wrapped up in this day. So, then, it had to be celebrated from the perspective of a daughter honoring a mother, not of a mother honoring motherhood. How did she think you should celebrate? You go home, like a Thanksgiving Day for mothers. If you can’t go home, you write or later, you call.
By 1912, Anna incorporated herself into the Mother’s Day International Association, which she ran out of the house in Philadelphia that she shared with her unmarried brother and sister. She copyrighted the phrases “Mother’s Day” and “second Sunday in May” and the white carnation emblem, and she included warnings in her association documents that she would legally protect her copyright from infringement. This was a single woman creating something for herself at a time when independent women were not common. And she became well known, even internationally known. This movement became a big part of her identity, which made her fiercely defensive of it.
How quickly did her Mother’s Day movement take off? And how did she react when it happened? 
By 1912, most states recognized Mother’s Day in some way. Anna did it by constantly writing letters and reaching out—she wrote to every state governor, to charities, to the editor of Ladies Home Journal, even to Teddy Roosevelt. It’s a huge campaign, very successful. 
Then in 1914, Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation to make Mother’s Day a national day of observance. It was technically a flag resolution, all it asked everybody to do was hang a flag outside their house or on public buildings in honor of mothers. So as a concept, Mother’s Day entered the public domain. But to Anna, it was always her holiday. She copyrighted it. Oh, it made her so pissed off when anybody claimed that Woodrow Wilson was the founder of Mother’s Day. She would say, “All he did was sign it. I did all the work.” 
So then Anna began fighting to protect her day. She threatened lawsuits. She had battles with industries that were trying to commercialize her idea– the floral industry, the greeting card industry, the candy industry. The floral industry would hike the price of carnations up every Mother’s Day, which she hated so much. 
World War I began in 1914, and the US entered the war in 1917. How was Mother’s Day exploited then? 
Mother’s Day quickly became part of the war propaganda effort. The military used it to reach out to mothers.“You’re a good mother if you raise your son to be willing to fight.” Then to their sons: “Go fight to make the world safe for democracy, to keep your mother safe.” There was a huge campaign to get soldiers to write home on Mother’s Day. The military would actually provide cards to get the soldiers to do it.

One of Anna’s big fights was with a group called American War Mothers, which was founded to support the war effort, then pivoted to helping veterans as well as widows and mothers who were left with nobody to care for them. During the 1920s, they started using Mother’s Day as a fundraising device, selling carnations. Anna’s response was, “You don’t have permission to use my day. You don’t have permission to use my carnations. How dare you?” At one point, she crashed their annual meeting and was arrested for disturbing the peace. 
Her problem with charities was that she didn’t believe the money they were raising was going to the people who needed it. There was no transparency. She used to refer to charities as “Christian pirates” or the “expectant mother racket.” 
But what also really bothered her was how these charities seemed to violate the idea of Mother’s Day as she had envisioned it. To her, this was supposed to day of gratitude and respect. Not a day to feel sorry for mothers, not a day to try to rescue them. Her feeling was, you can pity mothers any other day. This is the day to just celebrate them.
One of Anna’s strangest battles is with maternal health charities—the kind of groups that own mother would have supported and celebrated in her version of Mothers’ Day.
In 1933, during the Depression, the US Senate amended the original Mother’s Day resolution, asking that people donate to charities. Instead of just honoring your own mother and hanging a flag, let’s help mothers and families in the midst of this economic crisis where there was no male breadwinner or the father was dead. That opened the floodgates. Every charity that could tie Mother’s Day to their organization tried to do so. And Anna was outraged. 
One of the groups she went after was the Golden Rule Foundation, which promoted what was known as the Forgotten Mothers campaign to help poor women, including in Appalachia, where Anna was born. Where’s all this money going? she wanted to know.
Another was the Maternity Center Association, which was based in New York City and very focused on the idea of improving maternal mortality and health. Maternal deaths were still extremely high in the 1930s and the MCA was trying to address that problem in an era when you weren’t even supposed to say the word “pregnancy” in public, on the radio, or in print. MCA trained public health nurses and nurse-midwives. They also had classes on nutrition and prenatal and postnatal care. At first, their funding came from the federal government, but when that program dried up in 1929, they needed to raise money to get their message out. Mothers’ Day was perfect for that—to get around Anna’s trademark, they moved the apostrophe in the name. There’s a great quote from a magazine article at the time that summed up their sentiment: “Women are dying, and we’re giving them potted plants.” 
They had a lot of very big-name supporters, like Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins [the Secretary of Labor, the first woman cabinet secretary, and a major architect of the New Deal]. Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t understand why Anna was so mad at her: “We’re promoting your day!”
Nonetheless, she accused the First Lady of “grand larceny of human reputation and achievement” for using her day in a manner Anna never intended. She often complained about Mrs. Roosevelt’s support of the charitable campaigns in telegrams to FDR. She even wrote Frances Perkins demanding that she resign; Anna accused her of using federal funds to support the MCA’s ability to steal the holiday.
How could Anna Jarvis have argued with the mission of saving mothers’ lives?
Some of it definitely was her ego. Some of it went back to Anna saying, Can we just have one day when we just love mothers and thank them? On this one day, do we have to upbraid women and tell them they’re not good enough mothers because they’re not educated enough, because they don’t see a doctor? She hated the idea that Mother’s Day came with conditions, or pity because you’re poor or uneducated. She wanted the message to be, unconditionally, “You’re a good mother.”
Her own mother would have loved what the Maternal Center Association was doing—educating and empowering mothers to survive childbirth and keep their children alive. 
Over the years, she had so many fights, with so many powerful people—some women and a lot of men. How did they react?
Powerful men would say, well, she’s just crazy. And Anna definitely was intense. At one time she had over 30 lawsuits pending, according to a Newsweek article. But calling women crazy is historically how we’ve always dismissed them. She was an independent woman trying to carve out her life for herself and protect her intellectual property. I’ve got to admire her spunk. She would stand toe to toe with anyone. There wasn’t a man or a woman she was afraid of.
So what happened to Anna Jarvis? How did her battle over Mother’s Day end? 
Her battle ends because she just couldn’t fight it anymore. It took everything out of her emotionally and physically—and financially. When the brother she lived with died in 1926, she inherited his money and used it to fund her work. But eventually it was gone. I have never come across anything that suggests that Anna Jarvis ever profited from Mother’s Day financially. 
A Newsweek article from 1943 detailed her stumbling into a Philadelphia hospital, emaciated and sickly. She ended up in a sanitarium, like a nursing home. Her younger sister, who had been living with her, didn’t want to leave their house, and two months later she was found dead in the kitchen. Supposedly it was so cold that there were icicles hanging from the ceiling. Anna died in 1948 and was buried next to her mother, brother and sister in Philadelphia. 
What would Anna think of Mother’s Day, or Mothers’ Day, today?
Anna would not be happy with the commercialization of it, but she would have approved of the more sentimental part of it: “Don’t shame me because all I want to worry about is my mother.” 
And what do you think of it?
I’m surprised the day is not being used more for progressive movements. Maybe we should shame people for only caring about their own mothers. Especially in this environment. Maybe we really need to start worrying about all mothers. I live in a state with no abortion rights. I teach 19-year-olds who want to be mothers someday, but we don’t protect maternal health. I worry about my students. I worry about their futures. 

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