Mother’s Day 2018
by Joanna Manning
Mother’s Day 2018 finds me in a militant state of mind. And if we go back to the origins of the celebration, that’s actually very appropriate frame of mind to be in.
As you may know, Mother’s Day began not as a celebration of a woman’s personal devotion to her family but as a holiday that commemorated and fostered women’s civic and international activism.
The first reading today is part of the text of the first Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870 and it sets the tone for Mother’s Day firmly within the struggle against war and violence. The immediate cause was the ending of the Civil War in the US which had ended in 1865. Here are some of her words:
Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause…We women of one country will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs…In the name of womanhood an humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women be called…to promote the alliance of different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.
But even before Julia Ward Howe issued this stirring proclamation, a community activist named Anna Reeves Jarvic had started organizing a Mothers’ Works Day in West Virginia in 1858. Her goal was to improve conditions in Appalachian mining communities, but later she too joined the Mother’s Day movement for the abolition of war. So women’s political militancy was on the scene in the latter part of the 19th century and it later blossomed also in the movement for women’s suffrage and also the temperance movement.
So Mother’s Day arose as a day of public protest, struggle and social activism. But it wasn’t long before the original reason for the day was subverted and then co opted by the rising capitalist market and in particular, the Hallmark card industry. The growing capitalist economy of the 20th century began to target women as the main consumers for their families and the original focus of Mother’s Day faded into the background. And now, here we are in 2018 with Mother’s Day which has bloomed into a billion dollar industry.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking the flowers and cards and other special celebrations that we all enjoy. But Mother’s Day could so much more than the rather cloying sentimentality that a Hallmark Card might suggest.
Now I also want to acknowledge in passing, that in 2018, a gendered definition of Mother’s Day can no longer hold water. This week, Ontario officially recognized non-binary gender with the designation of Joshua M Ferguson as trans non-binary, with a birth certificate was marked with an X. There are also partners in same sex unions in which one or more partners did not give birth to the child: indeed, there are people of all gender expressions who care about and parent children but did not give birth to them.
So Mother’s Day today is a celebration of about people who parent, whether cis-gendered, lesbian, gay or trans. About people who can ‘mother’ the future into existence whether or not they care for individual children -including people who are willing to take action on behalf of Mother Earth.
But as I was thinking about the co-option that has taken place over the original purpose of Mother’s Day, it occurred to me that a very similar distortion has happened to the Mother of all Mothers, Mary the Mother of God. Now I realize I’m speaking here as a woman who was brought up Roman Catholic, and there are many women here who don’t share this particular induction into femininity and motherhood, but I think there are others who will recognize the syndrome.
So when the feminist theologian Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza describe sthe Virgin Mary as: “a stick to beat uppity Catholic girls with and return them to the appropriate demureness and submissiveness,” I nod my head in recognition. Because for centuries, Mary’s image has been tamed and distorted within the church as the virgin who becomes a mother without any sex involved. And so Mary becomes like a Hallmark card version of a woman who who can be the safe focus of love on the part of celibate male clergy and of a hierarchy that still seems to have an almost pathological fear of strong, sexually active women.
But the Magnificat, that great proclamation of liberation, which we heard in the gospel of today tears away all those rose-coloured glasses. This is a revolutionary text – one that liberation theologians refer to as a “dangerous memory” that lurks within the pages of the scriptures.
Why? Because the Magnificat proclaims that the order of the world was about to be turned upside down. The Magnificat is the statement of a valiant, justice-loving woman and mother.. It’s also the longest text placed on the lips of the Mother of God. The Magnificat has is the victory song of the oppressed, which is why it is especially popular in Latin America. Mary describes herself as one the ‘lowly’. This is a misleading English translation as it not a metaphor for spiritual humility. In fact. Mary part of the ‘anawim’ those who are the focus of God’s justice and special care. She is living in occupied territory and she will give birth under the shadow of an oppressive empire. Not unlike the mothers in the Gaza strip, living in the shadow of another occupation, who wonder every day if their children will be caught in the crossfire of just picked off randomly by a sniper.
This Mary later becomes the refugee mother – crossing a dangerous border, pursued perhaps by stray militiamen and facing an uncertain future in strange land – maybe even in the equivalent of a refugee camp. So this Mother’s Day I think of Mary travelling amongst the mothers of the Royhinga, now facing the onset of the monsoon with nothing but their flimsy tents for shelter or mothers in refugee camps in Yemen or Somalia, often raped and beaten as they dare to set out in search of water for their children.
So the words of the Magnificat and those of Julia Howe’s Proclamation become parallel texts, stretching across time. They can help us re-think and re-fresh Mother’s Day and rescue it’s liberatory message from its focus on the personal and and the traditional family.
So yes, I do feel more militant and encouraged this year. This is also because I a resurgence of women’s activism that seems to be capturing the public imagination. While the pink hat symbol has been criticized since, it certainly brought women out onto the streets in January last year. I remember standing on a packed subway travelling to Queen’s Park, next to a young women with two little children. “I’ve never been to any kind of demonstration in my life” she said. “Well” said I, “ I hope this won’t be the last.”
The there’s been the //MeToo movement. And who can forget the young women and men who marched in their thousands against the NRA. The power of their call to peace echoed across the globe matching the words of Julia Ward Howe. “Disarm! Disarm! “ Lay down your guns for the sake of all our children!
So yes, let’s enjoy today, but please let’s use Mother’s Day 2018 not as a one-off yearly celebration but as a springboard into the risk of struggling for peace and justice.
And may the same Spirit of God, Ruah who gave courage and inspiration to the pregnant mother Mary unleash her wind and fire on us in the Pentecost we celebrate next week to fuel our energy to work for a better world. Happy Mother’s Day!