In the 1850s, Ann Reeves Jarvis started a Mother's Work Day to teach mothers to care properly for their children to prevent disease.
In the 1850s, Ann Reeves Jarvis started a Mother's Work Day to teach mothers to care properly for their children to prevent disease.

The women behind Mother’s Day

By Tanya Waterworth Time of article published May 8, 2021

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Durban - While the origins of Mother's Day can be traced back to honouring ancient Greek and Roman goddesses, Rhea and Cybele, it was the efforts of two US women, Ann Reeves Jarvis and her daughter, Anna Jarvis, who established the modern Mother's Day celebration.

And when the day became too commercialised, Anna Jarvis organised boycotts, protests and lawsuits to have Mother's Day banned from the national calendar, ending up broke and in a sanitarium.

Reports indicate the day was born out of grief for lost children ‒ in the 1850s, mother Ann Reeves Jarvis had lost a number of her 11 children to disease before they reached adulthood (the numbers differ in different accounts). This motivated her to teach mothers more about hygiene and healthy care for children.

She started a Mother’s Work Day to teach mothers sanitation, such as when preparing food, and to care properly for their children.

At the time vaccines and germ theory were still to be discovered and typhoid ran rampant in the area of the Appalachians where she lived. Ann Jarvis and her brother, who was a doctor, organised the work clubs. Her vision was a community service day for mothers to help other mothers.

Jarvis’s work expanded during the US Civil War. Her home was close to a major battlefield and she organised groups of mothers to visit and care for wounded soldiers ‒ from both the Union and Confederate sides of the war. These women also instructed soldiers and camp staff on basic sanitation practices.

Her efforts inspired other women to try to find ways to help, including suffragette, abolitionist and writer, Julia Ward Howe who had volunteered for the US Sanitary Commission during the Civil War. After the war, Howe wrote her “Appeal to womanhood throughout the world” and later “Mother's Day Proclamation” calling for women to unite and work towards global peace.

Howe wrote: “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, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

In 1908, Howe was also the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

ANNA Jarvis, daughter of Ann, pushed for the first official Mother's Day celebration at a Methodist Church in West Virginia in 1908, three years after the death of her mother.

In 1908 Anna Jarvis, daughter of Anne Reeves Jarvis, began to campaign to have Mother’s Day as an officially recognised day in honour of her mother, who had died in 1905, and for all women who had made sacrifices for their children.

Although never marrying or having children, Anna got financial backing from a department store owner, John Wanamaker from Philadelphia, and in May 1908, organised the first official Mother's Day celebration at a Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia.

She was determined to see the special day added to the national calendar, arguing that holidays were biased towards male achievements.

She launched a massive letter-writing campaign to newspapers and important politicians and by 1912, many churches, towns and states had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual holiday.

Anna established her Mother’s Day International Association. Her determination paid off with US President Woodrow Wilson assigning the second Sunday in May officially as Mother’s Day.

It became a celebration, with generous bouquets of flowers and beribboned boxes of chocolates the order of the day, but Anna was outraged at the commercialism around her special day. She launched a campaign against the big profiteers, urging people not to buy cards, confectionery or flowers.

She also launched countless lawsuits against groups that used the name “Mother’s Day” and actively lobbied the US government to have the day removed from the national calendar.

“To have Mother’s Day the burdensome, wasteful, expensive gift day that Christmas and other special days have become is not our pleasure. If the American people are not willing to protect Mother’s Day from the hordes of money schemers that would overwhelm it with their schemes, then we shall cease having Mother’s Day ‒ and we know how,” she wrote in the 1920s.

But big business won out and Anna died in 1948, in a sanitarium and penniless.

However, her efforts were not in vain and she has been recognised as a pioneer inspiring many mothers to become powerful advocates for change. - Sources :,, Reader’s Digest.

The Independent on Saturday

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