First, a mea culpa: We at JI screwed up and failed to plan anything for women’s history month. Instead, we ended up doing a month on ritual. Although the month was fantastic and pointed to a lot of new insights and directions for Mormon history, we felt that it was important to devote a month to women’s history. We batted around a few times of the year when we could do it and eventually decided to begin the month on Mother’s Day. That decision, however, wasn’t without some trepidation. There was a feeling that conservative religious groups often reduce women to their status as mothers – lauding them for their ability to have sex and produce a child afterwards. Breastfeeding, housework, and the willingness of some women to stay home are lauded and pointed out as women’s true calling, while the other things that women do – factory work, the production of academic scholarship, etc. are forgotten. Even more marginalized are those women who chose not to or cannot have children or those who remain single throughout their lives.
As we read about the history of Mother’s Day, however, we felt better about our decision. In the 1850s, Ann Reeves Jarvis organized Mother’s Day work clubs that worked to improve sanitary conditions among the working class, fundraise money to purchase medicines for those that could not afford them, and paid for maids for mothers who had contracted tuberculosis. During the Civil War, she encouraged the Mother’s Day clubs that she had founded to declare neutrality and to help aid to both Union and Confederate soldiers. It was her daughter Anna Jarvis who worked to make Mother’s Day a national holiday. Jarvis’ version of the holiday was more saccharine than her mother’s. She saw it as a way for women to remember the woman that they knew best – their mother. Even she, however, resented the way that it was taken up by the nation. Jarvis hated the commercialization of Mother’s Day and crashed a confectioner’s convention in 1925. Jarvis died in a sanatorium – penniless and wracked with dementia.
We envision this women’s history as being in the tradition Ann Jarvis, her daughter, and the women who initially founded Mother’s Day—not as a holiday for going to the beach or brunch but as a way to organize efforts surrounding sanitation, infant mortality, and health. This month, we plan to explore women’s lives and work in a way that is not limited by their status as mothers but in a way that takes into account the full range of activities in which women engage.