Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Mother's Day reminder

In a world where the Greeting Card-Chocolate Industrial Complex has gone out of its way to set aside "special days," it's easy to lose track of the fact that the mother of all "days" was established for serious business:

Political activism seems a world removed from the hearts-and-flowers sentiments of Mother's Day. But if 19th Century poet and feminist Julia Ward Howe had had her way, the mothers of the world would not be spending the second Sunday in May being pampered and feted, but joining with other mothers in a global call for peace.

Howe was spurred to action in 1870 with the start of the Franco-Prussian War in Europe -- a conflict that lasted less than a year, but managed to inflict tremendous casualties in both the military and civilian populations, create both the modern German state and the French Republic, and start Europe down the path to the First World War, more than four decades later.

From her vantage point in Boston, Howe was appalled. The conflict struck her as "cruel and unnecessary...a return to barbarism." One day, she said, "[t]he question forced itself upon me, 'Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of human life which they alone bear and know the cost?' I had never thought of this before."

"The august dignity of motherhood and its terrible responsibilities now appeared to me in a new aspect, and I could think of no better way of expressing my sense of these than that of sending forth an appeal to womanhood throughout the world, which I then and there composed."

Among other things, her proclamation proposed: "As men have often forsaken the plow 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...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 some place deemed most convenient."

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