Voted Against Motherís Day
by Bill Kauffman
the annals of easy votes, one might expect to find a prominent place
for the congressional resolution to establish Motherís Day. Yet
the first Motherís Day legislation was hooted down in the U.S. Senate.
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 motherís death, all Americans
ought to honor the women who gave them birth.
May 1908, freshman Senator Elmer Burkett (R-Nebraska) put Miss Jarvisís
proposal before his colleagues. It was not a Hallmark moment.
Senator explained that Motherís Day legislation was a special request
of the Young Menís 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
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."
Burkettís 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.
John Kean (R-NJ) immediately moved to amend Burkettís measure by
striking everything after "Resolved" and substituting
the Fifth Commandment: "Honor thy father and thy mother."
Henry Moore Teller (D-Colorado) scorned the resolution as "puerile,"
"absolutely absurd," and "trifling." He announced,
"Every day with me is a motherís day."
Jacob Gallinger (R-NH) judged the very idea of Motherís 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."
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."
this objection may strike modern ears as bizarre whether or not
young men honored their mothers was NONE OF THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENTíS
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.
a margin of 33-14, the Senate contemptuously returned this first
Motherís Day resolution to committee. But a few constitutionalist
pettifoggers were not going to stop Anna Jarvis. She enlisted the
potent support of the Worldís Sunday School Association. By 1914,
members of Congress were falling all over each other in praise of
a federally sanctioned day of maternal homage. Motherís Day, celebrated
on the second Sunday of May, was here to stay.
logical companion to Motherís Day, Fatherís Day, took decades to
catch on, despite assiduous propagandizing by the necktie industry.)
a funny thing happened on the way to the florist. Anna Jarvis, the
mother of Motherís Day, became its harshest critic.
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
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 Motherís 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.
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
paperback by Picador. An earlier version of this essay appeared
in The American Enterprise.