- Reviewed by
Katharine Antolini skillfully integrates scholarship on motherhood and holiday events to show how the contested ideal of motherhood impacted the development of Mother’s Day from its inception in 1908 through post–World War II America. The focus of the book is about Anna Jarvis and her relentless pursuit to maintain control and copyright of Mother’s Day and designation as its founder; however, Antolini successfully demonstrates that “the holiday has always provided a platform for cultural debate over the intrinsic value of motherhood and the appropriate boundaries of the maternal role” (2). Through thorough research, Antolini successfully debunks local lore—Anna Jarvis’s troubled relationship with her mother, for example—and provides a balanced interpretation of this well-known and outspoken individual who held steadfast to a sentimental devotion to motherhood, as opposed to others who used the holiday for war propaganda, scientific approaches to parenting, and commercial interests. Antolini presents a complex narrative that illuminates the changing cultural expectations of families and parenting in American culture and society.
By identifying six leaders who are easily divided into two categories, Antolini adopts a creative approach to presenting her argument that incorporates biographical sketches of some of the holiday’s earliest advocates. The first group of three nineteenth-century women advocated a tribute to an activist version of motherhood. Women like Anna Jarvis’s mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, sought to honor mothers who brought their maternal influence into the public sphere. Ann Reeves Jarvis organized Mother’s Day Work Clubs in the 1850s for mothers to take an active role serving their communities outside of the confines of family and home. The second wave of Mother’s Day advocates, including Anna Jarvis, promoted a more sentimentalized view characteristic of the early twentieth century that celebrated the home. Neither Anna Jarvis nor her contemporaries had children of their own, and consequently they constructed the holiday through their perspective as adult children who [End Page 73] honored their mothers. Ironically, the sentimentalized event promoted and controlled by Anna Jarvis was the exact opposite of her mother’s activist intent.
Jarvis’s battle with the American War Mothers (AWM) was symbolic of Jarvis’s focus on Mother’s Day as a democratic holiday. Everyone had a mother who deserved to be honored, but not everyone was a mother or had a son in military service. In addition to what she saw as being exclusive to women who had children, she decried the AWM as propagandizing the sanctity of the holiday to promote war. According to Antololini, the newly nationally recognized holiday had “tremendous sentimental appeal” offering “an irresistible opportunity to serve civilian mobilization as the United States entered into World War I.” By tying Mother’s Day, the sacrifice of American mothers, and the necessity of fighting to protect American homes, the AWM promoted a foreign war and ignited Anna Jarvis’s criticism (98).
As the national popularity of the holiday grew, philanthropic groups like the American Mothers Committee of the Golden Rule Foundation and the Maternity Center Association (MCA) altered the design and meaning of the celebration and “promoted a new Mother’s Day that they believed better represented the expectations of motherhood, the needs of mothers and children, and the role of women in the modern era.” Antolini argues that these groups harkened back to the original intent of “social motherhood” for “modern social agendas” advocated by Anna Jarvis’s own mother (125). The MCA embraced scientific training in order to raise awareness of high maternal death rates, advocate prenatal care, and provide expectant mothers with access to healthcare professionals. In addition to using Mother’s Day to raise money for their goals, the MCA was in direct opposition to Anna Jarvis’s sentimental holiday that universally celebrated—rather than critiqued—maternal love and devotion to her children. Antolini argues that Jarvis’s attack on the MCA reveals the cultural tensions in the interwar period about scientific motherhood and “the natural abilities of mothers to rear their children and...