They Voted Against Mother's Day

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by Bill Kauffman by Bill Kauffman

In the annals of easy votes, one might expect to find a prominent place for the congressional resolution to establish Mother's Day. Yet the first Mother's Day legislation was hooted down in the U.S. Senate.

Mother's Day was the brainchild of Anna Jarvis, a Philadelphia woman stricken with grief over the death of her saintly mother in May 1905. Two years later, Miss Jarvis organized memorial services for her mother in Philadelphia and her hometown of Grafton, West Virginia. Then, in one of those mad boundless leaps taken only by the most irrepressible holiday entrepreneurs, Anna Jarvis went national. She decided that henceforth, on the anniversary of her mother's death, all Americans ought to honor the women who gave them birth.

In May 1908, freshman Senator Elmer Burkett (R-Nebraska) put Miss Jarvis's proposal before his colleagues. It was not a Hallmark moment.

The Senator explained that Mother's Day legislation was a special request of the Young Men's Christian Association. The YMCA, he asserted, was doing valiant work in the "gathering together of the boys for social intercourse" – a theme later elaborated upon by the Village People in their timeless disco tribute to that venerable institution.

Mother's Day, said Senator Burkett, would remind "boys from the country who are in the cities and among strangers" to think of "the old homes they left behind and the mothers who gave them birth."

Senator Burkett's mawkish but sincere discourse was met by a hail of mockery. The neophyte legislator was astonished by the ridicule heaped upon his innocent proposal. "I did not expect that a single objection would be offered," he averred; he was offended to hear "light made of it" by his gray colleagues.

Senator John Kean (R-NJ) immediately moved to amend Burkett's measure by striking everything after "Resolved" and substituting the Fifth Commandment: "Honor thy father and thy mother."

Senator Henry Moore Teller (D-Colorado) scorned the resolution as "puerile," "absolutely absurd," and "trifling." He announced, "Every day with me is a mother's day."

Senator Jacob Gallinger (R-NH) judged the very idea of Mother's Day to be an insult, as though his memory of his late mother "could only be kept green by some outward demonstration on Sunday, May 10."

"There are some thoughts that are so great and so sacred that they are belittled by movements of this character," lectured Senator Charles Fulton (R-Oregon), who went on to suggest the consecration of "Mother-in-Law Day."

Besides – and this objection may strike modern ears as bizarre – whether or not young men honored their mothers was NONE OF THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT'S BUSINESS.

"It is not a proper subject for legislation," declared Weldon Heyburn (R-Idaho). "[T]he sentiment that exists between the parent and the child" was "too sacred to be made the subject of bandying words" and symbolic and unconstitutional resolutions.

By a margin of 33-14, the Senate contemptuously returned this first Mother's Day resolution to committee. But a few constitutionalist pettifoggers were not going to stop Anna Jarvis. She enlisted the potent support of the World's Sunday School Association. By 1914, members of Congress were falling all over each other in praise of a federally sanctioned day of maternal homage. Mother's Day, celebrated on the second Sunday of May, was here to stay.

(The logical companion to Mother's Day, Father's Day, took decades to catch on, despite assiduous propagandizing by the necktie industry.)

But a funny thing happened on the way to the florist. Anna Jarvis, the mother of Mother's Day, became its harshest critic.

Jarvis denounced the florists and greeting-card manufacturers who battened on her day. In vain, she urged sons and daughters to buy buttons instead of flowers for mom; she called greeting cards "a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write." The embittered Jarvis concluded that "charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites" had corrupted "with their greed one of the finest, noblest, truest Movements and celebrations known."

The spinster Jarvis, who never had children, died alone in a Pennsylvania nursing home. She had come to agree with those early Senate critics who derided the establishment of a national Mother's Day. Clergymen sympathetic to Jarvis urged that Americans shun the commercial interests and honor their mothers with a hand-picked dandelion and either a hug or a hand-written letter. Sons and daughters are still free to take their advice.

Bill Kauffman’s [send him mail] most recent book is Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town’s Fight to Survive (Henry Holt), which has just been published in paperback by Picador. An earlier version of this essay appeared in The American Enterprise.

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