The Mother of All Holidays

Anna Jarvis is known in West Virginia for her desire to celebrate those who brought us into the world. But many might not be aware just how seriously she took her idea.

If your plan for Mother’s Day entails purchasing a greeting card and some flowers for the woman who raised you, you might want to think again. Anna Jarvis, founder of the upcoming holiday, would not approve.

In fact, she had no problem relaying her discontent about how Americans ended up celebrating Mother’s Day, not only to the makers of boxes of chocolates and floral bouquets but also to figures such as Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. Jarvis wrote strongly worded letters to them all, says Katharine Lane Antolini, assistant professor of history and gender studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon and author of Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for the Control of Mother’s Day, released in April by West Virginia University Press. “She designed it to be a homecoming to go spend time with your mother and thank her,” Antolini says. “It’s a child’s view of motherhood for someone who never had children, who only saw motherhood through the eyes of a child. After all, ‘Mother’s Day’ is possessive-singular. It’s not all mothers. It’s your mother.”

A Taylor County native, Jarvis created Mother’s Day, which was first celebrated in Grafton on May 8, 1908. It became a national holiday in 1914. By the 1930s, when Jarvis was in her 70s, the country was in a depression, and many charitable organizations used Mother’s Day as a way to raise money to help everyone from mothers of veterans to expectant mothers. While many—including the Roosevelts—thought that seemed like a grand idea, it did not sit well with Jarvis. “She had a quote—‘A woman is never poor who has the love of her children,’” Antolini says. And woe be to President Roosevelt, whose doodle was turned into the artwork used on a stamp to commemorate the holiday—albeit without the words “Mother’s Day,” which Jarvis had copyrighted, along with the phrase “second Sunday in May.” And she did not hesitate to threaten to sue those who infringed upon it.

Antolini stumbled upon the topic of Jarvis in about 2004 as a graduate student, when she was invited to the International Mother’s Day Shrine—formerly the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, in Grafton, where the first service was held— and saw boxes of documents on the floor of the kitchen. “The historian in me freaks out,” she says. “I’m thinking, ‘I can’t leave documents, some 100 years old, in boxes on the floor in the kitchen.’” Antolini has a master’s degree in public history, so she offered to spend a summer archiving the records. As she read through them, she found her topic for her doctoral thesis, which she completed through WVU. She was especially moved by a seven-page letter that Jarvis had written to her cousin, “ranting about all these different groups. It got me thinking, ‘What did these groups ever do to you that upset you so much?’”

That said, Antolini likes to put Jarvis’ frame of mind in context. “You also think of, throughout history, every time a woman is trying to defend herself, it’s easy to dismiss her as crazy. All these different groups would say she’s crazy—I began wondering if that’s an easy way to dismiss her.”

Still, some details were irrefutable, such as the fact that Jarvis never had children herself, which affected her view of motherhood. Ironically, her own mother, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, whose 1905 death motivated her daughter to establish the holiday, had also considered a similar celebration, but her concept honored motherhood in general. “Her mother would have approved of what other groups were doing. All the charities that Anna hated—her mother would have thought that was great. She saw motherhood through the eyes of a woman. The role of being a mother doesn’t stop at your front door. Women as mothers can come together and help society.”

In Memorializing Motherhood, Antolini also addresses the paradox that Jarvis created the holiday in a Victorian time, just as the country—and eventually mothers through the women’s movement—would begin to undergo historic social changes. In the midst of all that, the International Mother’s Day Shrine was created in 1962, and back then its board of directors probably would not have appreciated Antolini’s revelations about the holiday’s founder. However, “I’m on the board now, and the board is very open about it. It’s part of her character. She was so tenacious,” says Antolini, an Ohio native who did not grow up learning about Jarvis.

And if Jarvis could see Mother’s Day today? “She would be excited that it’s still celebrated and she’d be upset over how we commercialize it. And she would be upset that nobody knows who she is.” wvupressonline.com

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