Years after Julia Ward Howe wrote the martial anthem of the Civil War she campaigned for a ‘Mother’s Day for Peace.’
Before the Civil War started, and before Howe wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic, she had six children with her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe.
Eight years after writing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, she converted to a fervent pacifism. She also threw herself into the cause of women’s suffrage.
In 1870 she wrote ‘Appeal to womanhood throughout the world’ asking women to unite for world peace. The appeal became known as the ‘Mother’s Day Proclamation.’ It began,
Arise, then, women of this day ! Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears ! Say firmly : We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies.
Howe went on to demand that husbands shouldn’t come to their wives, ‘reeking of carnage.’ Nor should sons be taken from their mothers, ‘to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.’
And she pronounced that women of one country will be ‘too tender’ toward those of another, ‘to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.’
From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm!
She concluded by asking for an international congress of women to promote peace.
Mother’s Day for Peace
Howe was influenced by another peace activist, Anna Reeves Jarvis, a West Virginia woman who organized Mother’s Day Work Clubs before the Civil War. Women in the clubs raised money for medicine and inspected bottled milk and food. They also hired helpers for families in which the mothers had tuberculosis.
During the Civil War, the Mother’s Day Work Clubs declared their neutrality, cared for the wounded and fed and clothed soldiers on both sides of the conflict.
After the Civil War, Jarvis staged a Mother’s Friendship Day at the courthouse in Pruntytown, W.Va., to bring together people who supported the Confederacy and people who supported the Union.
Anna Reeves Jarvis died at 72 in Pennsylvania on May 9, 1905. Julia Ward Howe died five years later, at age 91 in Portsmouth, R.I., Four years after her death, President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother’s Day a national holiday. But not for peace.
Mothers Day, Finally
Anna Reeves Jarvis’ daughter, Anna Jarvis, finally succeeded in founding the Mothers’ Day holiday. She held a memorial for her mother on May 10, 1908, at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, W.Va. Anna Jarvis continued to campaign for a Mother’s Day holiday until President Woodrow Wilson issued the proclamation on May 8, 1914.
Two of Julia Ward Howe’s daughters, Maud Howe and Laura Elizabeth Howe, wrote a biography of their mother called Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910. It received the Pulitzer Prize in 1917. In the book, her daughters recounted how she celebrated her own Mother’s Day for Peace with her annual Peace Festival on June 2.
She was up early, and found the hall ‘beautifully decorated with many fine bouquets, wreaths and baskets, the white dove of Peace rising above other emblems.’ Two services featured many speakers, including William Lloyd Garrison.
In London, Geneva and Constantinople, women also prayed for peace that day. ‘Thank God for so much!” Howe wrote in her diary.
But the day never took hold, and Anna Jarvis came to regret the commercialism surrounding Mother’s Day.
Julia Ward Howe’s Rhode Island home, Oak Glen, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
This story about Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day for Peace was updated in 2022.