Mothers’ Day, Power, and the Holiness of Woman

Julia Ward How authored the original Mother’s Day proclamation in 1870, declaring it a day where women across the world would meet and discuss peace. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress/Wikimedia.

Now that the Mother’s Day cards, texts, voice-mails, flowers, chocolate strawberries, and candy have been sent and received; now that the various Mother’s Day gifts have been given and received; now that the Mother’s Day breakfasts, brunches, lunches, and dinners have been consumed, let us consider the original meaning of Mother’s Day and its implications for the power and the holiness of woman.

In her book, Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for the Control of Mother’s Day, Katherine Lane Antolini describes the difference between Mother’s Day written as a singular possessive and Mothers’ Day understood as a plural possessive. In the beginning of the idea of Mothers’ Day it was a day of action for all mothers to work together for a public goal. Later, the day would become a day for a sentimental remembrance of individual mothers and the idea of motherhood as individual female sacrifice for the benefit of her particular family.

In 1908, Anna Jarvis held a memorial service for her mother Ann Reeves Jarvis. This was the beginning of Mother’s Day as an individual remembrance. Her mother however invented a Mothers’ Day as a day of community service. Mothers would come together to help other mothers who were in need. Reeves Jarvis was a peace activist who was also interested in public health. Living in West Virginia, she had occasion to aid both Union and Confederate soldiers. It is said that in 1868, after the war, she used the idea of Mothers’ Day to bring together former combatants for a day of reconciliation.

Similarly, the original Mother’s Day proclamation issued in 1870 by Julia Ward Howe, abolitionist, suffragists, and author of the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, declared a day where women across the world would meet and discuss peace. Howe was disgusted by the carnage of the Civil War in the United States and the Franco-Prussian War in Europe. The proclamation says in part:

“The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood 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 & commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesars but of God.” (https://www.wagingpeace.org/mothers-day-proclamation/)

She thought that women in one country would care so much about the children of the mothers of another country that the mothers would not allow their sons to kill each other. Mothers’ Day was intended as a day that would exercise the power of women working together in unity to change the world.

Another woman associate with Mothers’ Day as a day of activism was Juliet Calhoun Blakeley of Albion, Michigan. She was concerned with temperance. As the story goes, after some people who were opposed to prohibition got the sons of some temperance leaders drunk and paraded them through town, an embarrassed minister could not lead the Sunday morning worship service. May 13, 1877, Juliet Calhoun Blakely preached that Sunday and invited the mothers there to support temperance.

Over the years, Mother’s Day would not only be commercialized to an extent second only to Christmas, but it would also be appropriated for various causes including supporting American involvement in wars and for charity. Anna Jarvis would oppose such efforts. However, I say: it is time to return to the idea of Mothers’ Day as a day of women’s solidarity for a cause larger than the celebration of individual mothers. At this moment in United States history, that cause is the right of a woman to choose whether or not she wants to be a mother.

According to Fortune on- line, 21 abortion restrictions have been enacted across the United States this year. Twenty-eight states have introduced bills that would add more restrictions. The restrictions are in such areas as genetic anomalies; procedure methods; trigger bans that would outlaw abortions state wide if Roe v.  Wade is ever overturned; and gestational age, some as early as six weeks before many women even know they are pregnant. This spate of antiabortion legislation has come because with the addition of two conservative judges on the Supreme Court—Gorsuch and Kavanaugh—people who describe themselves as pro-life think that the door is now open to ban abortions in many states. (http://fortune.com/2019/04/23/new-abortion-laws-2019/)

If this were to happen, women’s rights and women’s power, rights and powers that our foremothers worked mightily to achieve, would be severely diminished.

The history of abortion is as old as pregnancy itself. First, nature terminates up to 20 percent of known pregnancies. The actual number could be much higher because many woman undergo what is medically known as a spontaneous abortion before they even know they are pregnant according to the Mayo Clinic. (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pregnancy-loss-miscarriage/symptoms-causes/syc-20354298)A About 1 in 160 pregnancies end in stillbirth (miscarriage after 20 weeks) according to the American Pregnancy Association. (https://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancy-loss/stillborn-trying-to-understand/)

At the same time, women who have made the decision not to bring a pregnancy to term have used various methods to end the pregnancy including a variety of herbs and self-inflicted harm. Early anti-abortion laws were enacted to stop unqualified people from giving unsafe abortions to women. Now anti-abortion laws threaten to return us to a time when the only induced abortion available to a woman are those of unqualified abortionists.

In 1973, Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal across the United States, was decided on the grounds of privacy that a majority of justices found in the 9th and the 14th amendments. The logic is: the 9th amendment says: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” In other words, because a right is not specifically written in the Constitution does not mean that the people do not have that right. Section one of the 14th amendment says:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Because of the 14th amendment, a woman’s right to privacy regarding her reproductive health cannot be abridged without due process.

Women are not living breathing incubators. A woman’s body goes through serious changes when she becomes pregnant. Every organ in her body is affected. She may experience tiredness; nausea—sometimes extreme nausea throughout the pregnancy that can lead to dehydration. She may have mood swings; headaches; heartburn; body aches; carpal tunnel syndrome; swelling of ankles, fingers, and face; hemorrhoids; liver problems; and trouble sleeping. Other physical problems associated with pregnancy are anemia, depression, gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, and pre-eclampsia. (https://www.womenshealth.gov/pregnancy/youre-pregnant-now-what/stages-pregnancy/#1)

Moreover, the United States is the most dangerous developed country in which to deliver a child. According to a study by USA Today, around 50,000 mothers are severely injured during child birth in the United States and 700 die annually. (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/best-and-worst-states-to-give-birth-usa-today-investigation/)

Beside the problem of enforcing antiabortion laws, especially when the law makes abortion illegal after only six weeks because it would be difficult to know if the abortion is a spontaneous abortion or an induced abortion, the question of whether or not the state ought to have the power to force a woman to undergo the physical changes of pregnancy and the risks of child birth against her will is a basic question of freedom.

The so-called pro-life concern is with the fetus. What is the moral obligation of the state to the unborn child? Does it not have a right to life? I say no because no individual has a right to another person’s body. No individual has a right to another person’s pain. This means that we need to think about pregnancy and child birth not as a right but as a gift. If and when a woman decides to give birth, she has decided to give the gift of birth.

This is a pure gift consistent with the thinking of the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida who argued that a pure gift is that which cannot be reciprocated. When a woman gives the gift of birth, her children cannot do the same for her. They may do many wonderful things for her, but they cannot give her birth. Can and ought the state force a woman to give the gift of birth?

I say: women have a constitutional right under the 9th amendment to have the 10th amendment power over her own body. The 10th amendment of the constitution reserves powers not given to the federal government to the states or to the people. When the state forces a woman to carry a pregnancy to term against her will, that is involuntary servitude which is prohibited under the 13th amendment.

I have not seen the 10th and 13th amendments used as part of an argument in favor of a woman’s right to choose an abortion. I think this is because people who make and interpret laws are not accustomed to thinking about women in relation to their powers, and they do not think of forcing a woman to carry a child as involuntary servitude.

To people who are seriously pro-life, I say make changes in society that will make a woman more likely to say yes to giving the gift of birth. This would mean better access to contraception, better prenatal healthcare and care when a woman gives birth, especially for women of color who suffer worse outcomes when giving birth than do white women. Encouraging women to say yes to giving birth would require better paid family leave, affordable child care, quality education and jobs that pay a living wage.

Birth is an awesome power, and the power to say no to birth is also an awesome power because it is the end of a life.

This brings us to the holiness of woman.

The human imagination has imagined God the Mother since ancient times across cultures. Rhea is a Greek mother goddess whose name means the eternal flow of time. Together with Cronus, she ruled over a Golden Age of order and prosperity with a bird as her symbol representing peace and kindness. In her book Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, bible scholar Wil C. Gafney teaches us that there are “feminine and masculine names, titles, and images for God in the Scriptures. . . “She explains why she rarely uses masculine constructions for God: “As a womanist translator, I am committed to uncovering God-language that empowers black women and girls, locating their reflection of the divine image in the biblical text” (16). Gafney’s work also allows us to see how women have often been complicit in the oppression of other women.

Mothers’ Day dedicated to the power of women’s solidarity to take the power to insist upon our right and our power to choose when and if we will give the gift of birth is the correct tribute to the holiness of woman and to God the Mother, the divine impulse to birth peace and kindness and sustenance and joy into this world.

 

Works Cited

Antolini, Katherine Lane. Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and The Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day. West Virginia University Press, 2014.

Gafney, Wilda C. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.

Hull, N.E. H., and Peter Charles Hoffer. Roe v. Wade: the Abortion Rights Controversy in American History. 2nd ed. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2010.

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