How Mother Got Her Day

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State after state joined the movement. “From the Atlantic to the Pacific,” a London paper reported, “every man, woman and child will shortly be wearing a white carnation.” “White, black, and yellow, native-born and new-come to the land joined the celebration,” said the Pittsburgh Gazette. At the Philadelphia House of Detention, a magistrate distributed white carnations to forty young men under arrest. The Northern Pacific Railway gave the flowers to its diners. Even the normally unsentimental Mark Twain wrote, “I do not know how many more anniversaries of Mother’s Day I will see, but on those that I have remaining I will wear a white flower, the emblem of purity and my mother’s love.”

Anna’s correspondence mounted. She took a leave of absence from Fidelity Mutual and never returned. Memorializing mother became her life; in December, 1912, she incorporated herself as the Mother’s Day International Association. Most politicians seemed willing to take a firm position in favor of motherhood, and on May 10,1913, with no real debate the House unanimously passed House Resolution 103, stating that “the American mother is the greatest source of the country’s strength and inspiration … [and does] so much for the home, the moral uplift, and religion … that as a token of our love and reverence for the mother, the President and his Cabinet, United States Senators, Representatives of the House, and all officials of the Federal Government are hereby requested to wear a white carnation or some other white flower Sunday, May 11, in observance of Mother’s Day.”

Opponents of woman suffrage eagerly adopted Anna’s cause as their own. Woodrow Wilson—then still opposed to votes for women—wore a carnation to Washington’s Central Presbyterian Church. In New York, the Reverend Dr. Christian F. Reisner issued a Mother’s Day warning from his pulpit: “Motherhood is the school of the true woman. … The mother who spends six years with her children will know far more than the woman who neglects her duty in that way for social and political matters.” Women, he warned, should beware “lest they lose the power of motherhood.”

If mother becomes “a mother to the Municipality, who is going to mother us?” asked antisuffragist leader Marjorie Dorman. She recalled how she felt as a little child coming home from school, calling out to mother. “If there came no answering call ‘in the kitchen’ or ‘here in my room,’ a chill fell on us and the very spirit of life seemed to have vanished. How empty the place suddenly became—how loud and lonely sounded the ticking of the clock in the dining room.” “How,” she asked, “may a woman enter the public arena and run as far and as fast as a man if little hands cling to her skirts?” Women in politics had two choices, she thought, either “dropping the baby” or “refusing to feel the pressure of its little round head against her heart.”

But Anna herself was in favor of woman suffrage: she meant only to honor women and feminine values; she often adopted an antimasculine tone. Men, she argued, already had their holidays. New Year’s Day honored Father Time, Washington’s Birthday celebrated the Father of our Country, and Thanksgiving venerated the Pilgrim Fathers. Males, she wrote, were honored for their sacrifice in war, but “no loyalty or sacrifice surpass [es] those of mothers and wives who have given for their country’s defense lives more precious to them than their own. …”

Some suffragists tried to link motherhood and suffrage. The Women’s Political Union in 1914 offered a Mother’s Day prize of five dollars for the “best baby belonging to a suffragist mother” to show the world that ” ‘votes for women’ means better babies.” A New York Methodist minister argued in his Mother’s Day sermon that same year that it was much better for a man to take care of the children while his wife went out to vote, than to baby-sit while she might be “out playing bridge or maybe tangoing with some other man.”

Anna hoped primarily to inspire simple gestures: a letter to mother, a carnation in the lapel—mementos that “enable poor and rich alike to keep the day dedicated to the being whose name is first lisped by a little child and the last whispered by the dying soldier, ‘Mother.’ “But it all now began to get away from her. In Boston, for example, Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald launched a gala Mother’s Day municipal picnic. Between fifteen and twenty thousand mothers and children went to Franklin Park to enjoy orchestras, vocal quartets, brass bands, and hurdy-gurdies. Carrying flags and colored insignia, they watched Punch and Judy shows, absorbed lectures on infant hygiene, danced—some with Honey Fitz himself—and soaked up the sun and fresh air. The day ended with a mass pledge of allegiance to the flag.

Anna at first accepted support where she could get it. Her spokesman in Congress, Alabama senator Thomas Heflin, later a vitriolic anti-Catholic supporter of the Ku Klux Klan, introduced the proposal she had set as the capstone of the Mother’s Day drive in 1914.