© Jeremy D. Nickel 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
May 13, 2012

One of the many incredible aspects of having a child added to our family is how all the roles and names have suddenly shifted.

I went from being son to dad, and my father suddenly became grandpa. And of course that means my wife, whom I met as a young woman fresh out of college, is now mom. And the final piece of this amazing intergenerational shuffle is seeing my own parents care for my daughter, Eliza. My mom, who is now grandma, in an incredible act of love that she seems to enjoy just a little bit, spends every Wednesday and Thursday with Eliza, and my father comes over whenever he can, which he makes sure is often because he sure likes to be grandpa. This multi-generational carousel has truly been a thing to behold.

It has certainly changed the way I feel about Mother's Day. I have always loved and appreciated my mom and all she has done for me and my family and tried to express that to her throughout the entire year. I have also bristled against the commercialization of Mother's Day. Flower prices spike, there are all the cards and gifts that are purchased and sent, and the great Mother's Day feast is a pretty universal custom as well. The connection between those economic activities has always seemed a bit disconnected from the supposed point of honoring our moms. But with Eliza coming into our family and seeing my best friend become a mom - and such a wonderful one at that - has really brought the power of that role home to me in a new way. It is certainly something that I want to celebrate and honor in some way, if not that one.

I have for a long time been vaguely aware that one of our Unitarian ancestors, Julia Ward Howe, was at some level involved with the first Mother's Day in the United States. But I have never been very clear on what that meant. So I decided to do a little research about where this holiday comes from and how it has become what it is.

As is true with most holidays, this one has many origin stories. People have been honoring their mothers in many ways since the dawn of time. Many modern celebrations relate back to ancient festivals, like the Greek cult that worshipped the goddess Cybele, or the Roman festival known as Hilaria which was celebrated on the vernal equinox, or even the Christian ritual of the Mothering Sunday.

But our holiday, as we like to believe here in the United States, is a modern invention unique to our country. In dating the beginning of our tradition, most historians only go back to the early 1900s to a woman named Anna Jarvis who held a ceremony to honor her mother on the second Sunday of May in 1908. She did unquestionably lead to the popularization of this date and the holiday's modern form by campaigning for others to adopt her practice in the following years. However, ironically, Anna Jarvis herself only a decade or so later would begin yet another new tradition when she publicly bemoaned the commercialization of Mother's Day in 1922.

But it didn't have to be like this; it all could have been so different. Because long before Anna Jarvis had that ceremony to honor her mother, Julia Ward Howe had attempted to begin a Mother's Day tradition, but with a very different intention. Allow me to read her Mother's Day proclamation, which she wrote in 1870 as a pacifist reaction to the destruction and violence of the Civil War which she had witnessed firsthand.

"Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly: 'We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.'

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: 'Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.' Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means Whereby the great human family can live in peace, Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask That a general congress of women without limit of nationality May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient And at the earliest period consistent with its objects, To promote the alliance of the different nationalities, The amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace."

A very different idea for Mother's Day indeed. In Julia Ward Howe's vision, instead of a day set aside to honor mom, Mother's Day would be a time of empowerment for women so they might exert their newfound influence on a world that she knew desperately needed it.

Let me tell you a little bit more about Julia Ward Howe. Her own mother had died when she was very young. She was raised by a very strict father who worried about how creative and intelligent his daughter acted. So, for the most part, he attempted to lock her away from the world. She was married to a brilliant doctor who unfortunately shared her father's views on a woman's role. It was not until she moved to Boston in her mid 30s and began attending her local Unitarian church and hearing the sermons of the radical Rev. Theodore Parker, that her mind was finally set free. As she said in her own words: "During the first two-thirds of my life I looked to the masculine ideal of character as the only true one." Her encounter with the idea of the development of the female character was "like the addition of a new continent to the map of the world."

What she quickly came to understand was that beyond being an issue of human rights, women's voices needed to be empowered to join the public square because simply having men in political leadership meant that we as a society and culture were out of balance. It was clear to her what the consequences of that imbalance was: it was the horror that she had witnessed on a trip she took with her husband to visit an encampment of Union soldiers just outside of Washington D.C. in 1861. It was there that she had smelled the reeking of that carnage, had seen for herself the sword of honor dripping with the blood of injustice.

It would be easy to conclude that her vision for Mother's Day lost out to that of Anna Jarvis. But here is the thing: Howe went on to form several very important institutions. She was the founder and president of the Association of American Women, a group which advocated for women's education, from 1876 to 1897. She also served as president of organizations like the New England Women's Club, the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association, and the American Woman Suffrage Association. These institutions all had profound effects on liberating not just women but all kinds of people from the constricted roles forced upon them by 19th century American culture.

In terms of her main ambition, the education of women, we now live in a time when the majority of college students are women, 57% in 2005. I don't have the numbers for women in college from Howe's time, but I think a fair guess is they were somewhere between 0 and 1%.

Her larger goal was not just to have an educated population of women but that this would also lead them to have an influence in politics. While the dream of true gender equality in politics is lagging behind education, it is still a great deal better than in Howe's time. Currently women hold 90, or 16.8%, of the 535 seats in the 112th US Congress, 17 seats in the Senate and 73 seats in the House of Representatives. In addition, three women serve as Delegates to the House from Guam, the Virgin Islands and Washington, DC. Not to mention the very strong Presidential campaign in 2008 of Hilary Clinton.

Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of quoting the very same minister that so greatly influenced Julia Ward Howe upon her arrival in Boston. King's most famous paraphrasing of Rev. Theodore Parker is this: The Moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. I think that is true, but I also believe it is true that the bend towards justice is not automatic, that it is only due to the very hard and very real work of men and women like Julia Ward Howe that we are able to pull that arc down ever closer to the just world we all seek.

Julia Ward Howe may have lost the battle for Mother's Day, but more importantly, she won the war for women. That to me is a Mother's Day legacy worthy of a celebration. It is an important reminder that the true gift we give this world is the legacy we leave behind. Most of us have never heard of Julia Ward Howe before this day, yet her efforts a century and a half ago helped pave the way for the equality we see bursting into bloom all around us, a gift planted many moons ago, in a ground that at the time did not seem welcome to it.

May we continue to walk in the incredible legacy of our ancestors like Julia Ward Howe, and together work to pull that arc of justice yet another step closer to our world.

May it be so. Ashe.

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