Mothers Day and its significance for feminism

Apparently, even in modern feminist classes, whenever young women are asked who they most admire, would like to be like,  or hold up as a female icon, the majority always mention the same person. Who?

The five marks answer expected would be someone political like Margaret Thatcher or Hilary Clinton, depending of course on your party bias. Then, you would probably get a full ten and a round of applause  if you gave Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer or Valentina Tereshkova, the first female cosmonaut. But the response is invariably none of these and therefore a  great let-down for the lecturer. It is usually `my mother, and also……’

Touching, yes. If you are a mother.  But also hugely and for me positively significant, particularly today when women are achieving such great academic, public  and social feats. Is the fact that, despite this advancement, women’s heroines still seem to be essentially ordinary people, not the celebrities or highly paid CEOs we would expect, for example, men to flag up.

To me, the whole concept of feminism and its relevancy today is still intrinsically linked with  our poignant regard for  our mothers.

If I was asked the same question, my response `my mother, and also…’ would have to include Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, who was an American social activist during and after the American Civil War. In the late 1850s she set up clubs in Virginia to do really useful work to improve health and sanitary conditions, such as beginning milk inspections and funding home help support for women with TB. But what she must be  commended most for was her declaration of neutrality during the ugly and bitter conflict which erupted.   By helping to feed and clothe both Confederate and Union soldiers stationed in the area, and provide nursing support when typhoid fever and measles broke out in military camps on both sides, she was able to show `bonding’ at its best. Mothers of both Blue and Gray soldiers were suffering with the huge losses and this was something she recognised and responded to with compassion and practicality.

After her death, Ann’s unmarried daughter Anna held a memorial ceremony to honour her mother’s work, and thus the wonderful tradition of Mothers Day was born. Of course, as the years continued, what was a sombre and respectful event became so commercialised and exploited that apparently she regretted every having started it in the first place.

She wrote about it in later life: `A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment’ —Anna Jarvis.

That aside, Mothers Day is now celebrated all over the world on different days and for possibly different reasons. To me, however, for what it was supposed to commemorate about mothers – compassion, pacifism, bonding in conflict, fearlessness, courage, political nous, practical skills, nursing, helping men, helping women, helping children – it should be regarded as one of the most significant events in the feminist movement’s calendar.

My own mother and mother-in-law are no longer around, but I am fortunate enough to have two beloved daughters. Therefore I am looking forward to it when it takes place in the UK this Sunday coming.

About Louise Burfitt-Dons

Writer and social critic
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