Mommie Dearest

The Hidden History of Mother's Day

Everybody hates Mother's Day. Everyone loathes being forced to buy saccharine greeting cards and cheesy presents. Nobody likes waiting hours for a restaurant table or being lectured on their filial obligations by department stores. Everybody detests it. Everybody except your mom.

But maybe she'd like it a little less if you gave her a short history lesson along with that tired bouquet from the Korean grocery store. Tell her that though the first Mother's Day was dreamed up by a woman named Anna Jarvis, in 1907, the idea didn't really catch fire until 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson infuriated women's rights activists by proclaiming the second Sunday in May an official holiday. "Many of the era's suffragists . . . were already resentful of Wilson, and they objected to this sentimental response to women's economic and legal problems," reports Doris Weatherford in American Women's History, giving voice to the virtually unknown background of this hideous holiday.

Bad enough that the struggle for the vote was limping through the country— winning some states, losing others— while Wilson was opining that suffrage was "not a problem that is dealt with by the national government at all." Mother's Day was a solid message from Congress to the ladies of the land: stay behind closed doors, content yourself with home and hearth, and please shut up.

A suffragist at the White House, 1917: Woodrow Wilson was a lot happier signing off on Mother's Day than he was endorsing rights for women.
UPI/Corbis-Bettmann
A suffragist at the White House, 1917: Woodrow Wilson was a lot happier signing off on Mother's Day than he was endorsing rights for women.

No doubt Wilson was sick and tired of suffragists by the time he signed off on Mother's Day. They had just about ruined his 1913 inauguration, mounting such a militant demonstration and storming 5000 strong down Pennsylvania Avenue, that it completely diverted attention from his own ceremony. He just didn't get it: in 1916, when he finally addressed the National American Woman Suffrage Association, he told the assembled, "you can afford a little while to wait."

But women were in no mood to be patient. Those involved in the struggle had tasted liberty, a strange sensation for people who had spent the previous 100 years tight-laced into corsets, covered by bonnets and parasols, barely daring to speak above a whisper. Looking back on the heady days of the movement, English feminist Ida Alexa Ross Wylie reminisced: "To my astonishment, I found that women, in spite of knock-knees and the fact that for centuries a respectable woman's leg had not even been mentionable, could at a pinch outrun the average London bobby. . . . For two years of wild and sometimes dangerous adventure, I worked and fought alongside vigorous, happy, well-adjusted women who laughed instead of tittering, who walked freely instead of teetering . . . we shared a joy of life that we had never known. Most of my fellow-fighters were wives and mothers. And strange things happened to their domestic life. Husbands came home at night with a new eagerness. . . . As for children, their attitude changed rapidly from one of affectionate toleration for poor, darling mother to one of wide-eyed wonder. Released from the smother of mother love . . . they discovered that they liked her. . . . She had guts. . . . Those women who stood outside the fight— I regret to say the vast majority— and who were being more than usually Little Women, hated the fighters with the venomous rage of envy. . . ."

Alas, it isn't the fierce feminism of 1914 that is recalled in the Mother's Day ephemera of 1999. The aesthetic of Victorian kitsch has triumphed, presenting an infantilizing, degrading, infuriating picture of women promulgated by trinket companies, a retrograde media, and, sadly, lots of the little women themselves.

That's not to say that there aren't some concessions to the mores of the late 20th century: this year's greeting cards include bathetic New Age blather ("you offer me a center, a stability and calm"), faintly ironic acknowledgments of the obvious ("motherhood— it's not just a job, it's like two jobs with no pay and lots of overtime") and even a surfeit of instructive health information: American Greetings has launched a line of cards with the tacky poem on one side and some musings on breast cancer by a D-list celebrity (Daisy Fuentes, Peri Gilpin) on the other. (Poor Mommy isn't allowed to forget about mammograms, pap smears, and the other hazards of her sex for even one lousy day.)

If a card just can't say it all, the Hallmark store at 488 Madison Avenue has other suggestions: a plaster plaque with bas-relief blossoms that reads: "Mom, I'm assured of your love even though we're apart, 'cause so much we've shared is written on my heart," is $7.50; picture frames inscribed "I love my mommy" ($12.50) or alternatively, "My mom is the greatest" ($15) are decorated with inane drawings in primary colors that are supposed to evoke the daubings of a five-year-old. A musical Lucite frame with an inspirational saying ("Mother, when I couldn't stand you lifted me . . . ") plays "Memories" when wound— it's better than sitting through a matinee of Catswith Mom, but not much. A pink satin pillow, slightly bigger and a lot less fun than a whoopee cushion, printed "Mother to daughter, friend to friend, heart to heart" (what does this mean?), is $12.98; a $6.95 teddy bear wearing an Eton collar is bold enough to carry a card between his greedy paws that reads, "Buy a Mother's Day card or small gift and tuck it here."

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