Anna Jarvis and the History of Mother's Day

Anna Jarvis
And The
History Of Mother's Day

"The hand that rocks the cradle rules the nation and its destiny."
~~South African proverb

Whose brainchild was Mother's Day?

From Afghanistan to Costa Rica, more than 46 countries honor mothers with a special day, but not all nations celebrate on the same day. In the United States, for example, it is always the second Sunday of May. But England's Mother's Day falls on the fourth Sunday of Lent (March 17, this year). And the International Mother's Day is always May 11. (In the U.S., there is even an official Mother's-In-Law-Day -- the fourth Sunday in October.)

We honor Mom with sentimental cards, potted plants, breakfast in bed, an ENTIRE day without chores ... but how much do we know about the origin of this holiday?

While there is some conflicting evidence that local Mother's Day celebrations may have occurred in the late 1800's in different places throughout the United States, the idea for Mother's Day is generally credited to Anna M. Jarvis . Most sources agree that Mother's Day was first celebrated at a small church in West Virginia in 1907. It was a special service arranged by Anna M. Jarvis to honor the memory of her own mother. Seven years later, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother's Day a national holiday.

History books, even the field of women's history, often overlook Anna Jarvis' one-woman crusade. Perhaps this is because women were engaged in so many other reform efforts during the early 1900s. These reforms and the avenues they opened for women give historical context to the campaign for Mother's Day and the life of Anna Jarvis.


Women are extremely prominent in early 20th century history. For example, the National American Women's Suffrage Association's struggle to attain the vote is widely recognized, as are progressive reformers such as Jane Addams, who, with her Hull House, worked to ease the social ills, particularly the woes of immigrants and the working class. In recent years, enlightened scholars have also highlighted the tireless efforts of Black women, such as Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, who sought to organize both for women's rights and for the protection of African American rights.
Many of these reformers were mothers as well as activists, but their contribution as mothers was often overlooked. The creation of Mother's Day as a national holiday restored Mom's status as a cornerstone of the family and the nation.


Anna Jarvis came of age surrounded by Progressive reform efforts. She was raised in the small town of Grafton, West Virginia (now the site of an International Mother's Day Shrine). She taught school in Grafton, cared for her blind sister and her mother, participated in the temperance and suffrage movements, and was active in the local Methodist church. When her mother died in 1904, Ms. Jarvis sought a special memorial Mother's Day Service at the church. It took three years, but she eventually got her wish; the first Mother's Day service, mostly a gathering of friends and family members, was held on May 10, 1907.


The roles of women -- and mothers -- were changing rapidly during this period as women stepped down from the pedestals of Victorian womanhood. The Progressive Era (1900-1920), saw women emerge from the cocoon of the household into the vastness of community building and politics. Women such as Ms. Jarvis explored beyond their roles as housekeeper, mother, homemaker, and wife, but did not reject those roles. Rather, they expanded them into the public arena. "The statement that the home was woman's sphere was not an argument against women's suffrage but in favor of it," notes feminist scholar Aileen S. Kraditor, "for government was 'enlarged housekeeping,' and it needed the experiences of the nation's housekeepers."


Ms. Jarvis spent two fortunes, wrote thousands of letters to influential persons and authored many pamphlets in her effort to gain recognition for the traditional female role of motherhood. Nine years after she first sought a memorial service, Pennsylvania declared Mother's Day a state holiday in 1913.(Jarvis had moved from West Virginia to Pennsylvania in 1904 to take a positions as a literary editor for a Philadelphia based company.) Congress followed Pennsylvania's lead a year later, proclaiming the second Sunday of May as Mother's Day.

Today, most of us celebrate Mother's Day with little awareness of how it began. But we can identify with the respect, love and honor that Anna Jarvis displayed nearly a century ago. Women, especially mothers, face face new challenges in society today, but motherhood remains a lasting influence on us as individuals and as a nation. The love that was officially recognized in 1907 is the same love that we celebrate today. We may not be as reform-minded as Anna Jarvis, but in our own way we can make this a special day.

Go back to the Mother's Day Page.