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Julia Ward Howe: The Woman Behind Mother’s Day

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We take a look at the woman behind Mother’s Day, Julia Ward Howe. The author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, she began advocating for a mother’s day for peace in 1870. [includes rush transcript]

As we approach Mother’s Day this Sunday, we take a look at the woman behind Mother’s Day, Julia Ward Howe. Yes, she is the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic but after seeing some of the devastating effects of the Civil War- death, disease, famine and poverty–she began advocating for a mother”s day for peace in 1870.

  • Valarie Ziegler, Professor of Religious Studies, DePauw University.
  • Mother’s Day Proclamation, written by Julia Ward Howe and read by Democracy Now producer Yoruba Richen.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined in the studio by Professor Valarie Ziegler. She wrote a biography of Julia Ward Howe called Diva Julia: The Public Romance and Private Agony of Julia Ward Howe. Valarie Ziegler is a Professor of Religious Studies at DePauw University here in Indiana. Thank you for driving over to Indiana University. Tell us about Julia Ward Howe. I didn’t know about Mother’s Day being Peace Day.

VALARIE ZIEGLER: Yes. Howe was very interested by the time she got to the 1870s in the Women’s Movement, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, in particular, and the Franco-Prussian War — it’s not a war that most Americans or probably even most Europeans think too much about. But in 1870, she looked at this war and she began asking herself, you know, why is it that nations do this to one another, and in particular, she began thinking about what might be possible for women to do on behalf of humanity. And women in this day and age were supposed to be confined to the home. They weren’t supposed to be out making speeches or working for political change. And Howe really wanted to find a way for women to express what she thought was an innate nature of love for God and love for humans. She thought that being a mother really was a powerful experience and that after having been a mother, no one could willingly see their sons go off to war to be slaughtered, so she began to organize on behalf of women for peace, basically. And again, her theory was men just seem to be innately aggressive, and the only hope for civilization is for women to speak a different kind of voice. So, she held peace conferences both in the United States and in Britain, and by 1872, she began proclaiming that June 2 every year would be a Mother’s Day for Peace. And so, Mother’s Day originally was not a day when dad cooked and you went to church, and the ladies got applause and everything. It was really a day for women to come together and to call men and the world to see the necessity for living in peace, rather than giving into the ravages and aggressions of war. So, yeah, Mother’s Day is really a day of activism.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did she get it adopted?

VALARIE ZIEGLER: Well, it was informally adopted really early on. By 1873 there were at least 18 cities in the United States, plus Rome and Constantinople, that were observing it. But she never was successful at getting it adopted at a congressional level or a presidential level. So, actually, it continued to be celebrated through the 19-teens at least in some parts of the country, especially in Pennsylvania. But the Mother’s Day that we know today actually came from a woman named Anna Jarvis, who knew about Howe’s work, and she was a West Virginian, and in 1907, persuaded her home church to celebrate a Mother’s Day, and it sort of caught on. By 1912, Congress had declared Mother’s Day sort of an official holiday.

AMY GOODMAN: How did Julia Ward Howe reconcile “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which she wrote with this international drive for a day for peace?

VALARIE ZIEGLER: Yeah, I think it shows the incredible difficulties involved in working for justice, basically. I mean, she was absolutely committed to the Civil War. She wrote “The Battle Hymn” — I mean, it’s an incredible theological document, but it’s also a call for arms that’s incredibly stirring. And you will remember the lines, “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” I mean, she is using Christian images. And she’s, you know, asking people to devote themselves even to the last measure to get rid of slavery. So slavery was an important cause for her. Peace and women’s rights was also an important cause, and I mean, she clearly changed methods.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Ziegler, we only have ten seconds before we play Julia Ward Howe’s proclamation.


AMY GOODMAN: But can you give us a little context for this?

VALARIE ZIEGLER: She wrote the proclamation in 1870 as a call for women around the world — men, too, of course — to listen to a public voice and then answer it themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to play it right now. Dr. Ziegler, thanks so much for being with us, author of Diva Julia: The Public Romance and Private Agony of Julia Ward Howe. And we thank our own producer, Yoruba Richen for reading the words of Julia Ward Howe.

JULIA WARD HOWE: [read by Yoruba Richen] Arise, then, women of this day. Arise all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of fears. Say firmly, we will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us wreaking with carnage for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken to 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. From the bosom of the devastated earth, a voice goes out with our own. It says, disarm. Disarm. The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession. 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. Let them meet first as women to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other, as the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, and each bearing after her own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

AMY GOODMAN: The the words of Julia Ward Howe, her Mother’s Day Proclamation, written in 1870, read by Democracy Now! producer, Yoruba Richen.

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