Op-Ed

42 years before it became an official holiday, feminist Julia Ward Howe called for a Mother’s Day dedicated to peace

Now, it’s time to reclaim Mother’s Day and return it to its roots of peace activism, Jamie Dobie and Tanya Henderson write

circa 1855: American feminist, abolitionist and reformer Julia Ward Howe (1819 - 1910). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In early 2017, millions of women marched and demonstrated for the human rights and dignity of all people, and made headlines around the world. It was a moving, profound moment — but it didn’t surprise anyone who knows the true origins of Mother’s Day.

Women have been at the forefront of peace and social justice movements throughout history, and recent decades are full of inspiring examples. Take the 10,000 Catholic and Protestant women in Northern Ireland who came together to protest violence and demand peace between republican and loyalist factions. Or the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, whose non-violent protests brought an end to the country’s civil war and sent dictator Charles Taylor into exile. Here in the United States, one of the largest social justice movements of our time, Black Lives Matter, was started by three women — and a call to end violence is at its core.

So, on this Mother’s Day, we think it’s appropriate to reflect on this holiday’s original aims.

In 1872, nearly 45 years before it became an official U.S. holiday, American feminist, abolitionist, and pacifist Julia Ward Howe called for a Mother’s Day dedicated to peace in honor of mothers who lost their sons and husbands during the U.S. Civil War — a brutal conflict in which nearly one in 10 American men lost their lives. In her widely-read Mother’s Day Proclamation, Howe called on mothers of all nations to lead their countries in not only rejecting war, but also working for peace “in the name of womanhood and of humanity.”

Decades later, the daughter of social justice activist Anna Reeves Jarvis observed Howe’s day of peace through a Mother’s Friendship Day, bringing together families and neighbors divided by the Civil War. She devoted herself to lobbying government, business, civil society and religious leaders in support of an official Mother’s Day declaration. Her efforts paid off in 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson declared that the second Sunday in May would be commemorated annually as Mother’s Day.

Over time, the connection between Mother’s Day, peace efforts and women has largely been forgotten. But as images glorifying the military-industrial complex dominate our daily news cycle (look no further than the perversely-named “mother of all bombs”), we think it’s time to bring this page of history back into the light. Julia Ward Howe’s words ring just as true today as they did in the wake of the bloodiest war in our history.

While it is undoubtedly true that women are not inherently peaceful, virtuous, or incorruptible, researchers have found that an increase of women’s participation in government leads to a decrease in state-sponsored violence. An analysis of more than 40 years of data on international crisis reveals that when the percentage of women in national legislatures increased by only five percent, countries became five times less likely to use violence when faced with an international crisis.

Recently, gender equality has been shown to be a better overall indicator of a nation’s peacefulness than democracy, religion, or even its GDP. These facts are well known; yet only one in five parliamentarians globally are female. This Mother’s Day, we want to remind the world that this inequality is not only senseless — it’s illogical. Women make up more than half the world’s population, and they should be represented accordingly.

The barriers women leaders face in entering a male-dominated political arena are profound — they’re social, cultural, and economic. But they are not insurmountable.

Our two organizations — Peace is Loud and Mina’s List — are working to break them down with an approach that addresses both political realities and broader cultural forces. Peace is Loud has built an audience of millions through film campaigns and speaking events that highlight the stories of women who play vital roles in peace and security processes. Mina’s List works with women’s peace organizations and sitting parliamentarians in countries like Afghanistan and Nigeria to recruit, train, and equip women peace leaders to contest and win national elections. Our collective work is generating a groundswell of people who are advancing a culture of peace on-the-ground, and in politics — and a groundswell is what is needed.

Like Julia Ward Howe, we believe that women’s equal — and substantive — political power is not only possible but essential to building the more peaceful world we all deserve. It’s time we remember — and reclaim — Mother’s Day for its original purpose.

Jamie Dobie is Executive Director of Peace is Loud, and Tanya Henderson is the founder of Mina’s List.

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