(me, in bonnet, and my Mama, c. 1982)
Arise then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly:
“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with Our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home, for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means Whereby the great human family can live in peace…
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality, may be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient and the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.
—Julia Ward Howe, 1870
Mother’s Day wasn’t founded for mothers. It was founded by them—and with revolution in mind. Acutely aware of the costs of war, industry, and greed, Julia Ward Howe and like-minded women initiated the first Mother’s Day as a day of activism, a day in which women would stand upon the basic principles of motherhood to demand a more peaceful, just world. It wasn’t the first time women made such demands, and it would not be the last. Having gone through the pain and joy and struggle and exhilaration and labor of bringing children into the world and raising them to be caring, responsible, creative, moral members of society, many women have historically found it difficult to stomach the wars and social forces which then twisted the bodies and minds of their children—and the “enemy” children of other mothers—in the interests of ideology and profit.
(Meeting a goat at the Evergreen State Fair, c. 1987)
There are as many examples of mother-activism as there are cheesy Hallmark Mother’s Day cards. One of my personal favorites: On 1 November 1961, incensed to learn that radioactive istotopes from domestic nuclear testing had contaminated their breastmilk and the cows’ milk they fed their children, some fifty thousand mothers walked out of their kitchens in a nationwide “Strike for Peace.” The walkout had been organized via women’s networks, like PTA and Christmas card lists, knitting circles, and childcare groups. Well-aware that any seeming “radicalism” would lose them public sympathy, these women utilized their roles as mothers to protest, couching their opposition to testing in terms of their children’s safety, rather than any larger political formulation. Brought before the Anti-Communist McCarthy hearings, the members of the new movement, Women Strike For Peace, made a mockery out of the hearings by wheeling in strollers and breastfeeding their children as they were interrogated for Communist ties. They made the contamination of milk by nuclear testing a national issue, and the effectiveness of their message helped drive testing underground in 1962.
Another one of my favorite mother-activism stories, as told by the mothers themselves:
My mother raised me to stand for peace. She taught me as a child that change is not brought about by grand pronouncements or flashy leaders, but by the steady, daily work of ordinary people, women and mothers in particular.
She taught me to grow my own food in a backyard garden, and taught me how to spin wool into yarn, which she taught me to knit into hats. She taught me how to return to the stories and documents of the past to illuminate the work of living and the injustices of colonialism and patriarchy. She is a brilliant writer, and the keeper of many stories. She gives selflessly, loves fiercely, and works, tirelessly, to realize her hope for a more peaceful and sustainable human path.
One of my earliest memories: we are in the livingroom of our old house in Snohomish. The air is cool, and the overhead lights are off. I think it must have been summertime, and I remember the glowing radio display on the old silver stereo. Maybe she was holding me, or I was standing next to her looking up, or I was standing on a chair to turn up the volume myself… ??
The group vocals of “We Are the World” flooded the livingroom, and I remember her explaining to me what the song meant. That we are all connected. That this was an important song, because all of these people had come together to sing about peace, for children. And we danced around the livingroom together, as we often did.
Today is my mother’s twenty-eighth Mother’s Day.
And so, for this mother’s day…
I want her to know that I’ve been listening, for all these years. I love her so much, and I couldn’t have asked for a more loving, powerful mother. In honor of my mother Theresa, my grandmothers Marian and Frances, and their mothers before them, I have made a donation to Code Pink, to support the revolutionary work of Mother’s Day.
Here’s a little nostalgia to dance around to…