Mother's Day: It's all about infant and maternal health

As Americans celebrate Mother’s Day, few are aware that the holiday’s critical epicenter was in Philadelphia. This city hosted one of the first official and broader Mother’s Day ceremonies, which stemmed from a great campaign of religiously motivated social reform and political action.

Moreover, some issues raised at that time remain relevant to current political disputes.

In the second half of the 19th century, maternal and infant mortality rates were falling in Western Europe. In America, however, they were nearly twice as high. Health authorities in Europe cleaned up water supplies, improved general sanitation, and experimented with publicly backed prenatal care. In America, meanwhile, diphtheria and typhoid were particularly deadly in rural areas. Prenatal care for those mothers, as well as education in simple hygiene, was largely nonexistent.

An early crusader on these issues was Anna Jarvis. In time, her work impressed a prominent Philadelphia businessman, John Wanamaker. Together, they helped fuel what we now know as Mother’s Day.

Anna’s mother, Ann, was the daughter of a Methodist minister in Virginia, and she married another “preacher’s kid” in 1850. While he became a successful small-town merchant, Ann’s life — according to the West Virginia State Archive — “revolved around her church.” She emerged as a leader in an aggressive Sunday school movement, which, at the time, was new.

Ann also knew personal tragedy: Of her 12 children, only four survived to adulthood.

She resolved to make things better. In 1858, while pregnant with her sixth child, she launched Mother’s Day Work Clubs in five towns to reduce infant mortality. These clubs raised money to buy medicines and hire mothers’ helpers for those suffering from tuberculosis. The clubs inspected food and milk for contamination — long before governments took on such tasks — and they visited homes to teach mothers how to improve sanitation. Ann became a popular speaker, addressing subjects ranging from “Great Mothers of the Bible” to “Great Value of Hygiene for Women and Children.”

While Ann and her friends focused on more rural locales, the Settlement House movement — associated with Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams — did similar work among immigrants in the cities. Their collective efforts swelled into a vast movement involving well over 10 million American women, now labeled by historians as the Maternalist campaign.

Backed by women’s groups ranging from the Women’s Trade Union League to the Daughters of the American Revolution, this coalition became one of the strongest lobbies ever seen in Washington.

Their worked helped:

  • Establish a federal bureau that published books on prenatal and infant care, which sold more than 1.5 million copies over the next decade.
  • Launch a National Baby Week, where more than 4,200 communities took part through lectures, baby-care seminars, and parades. As historian Molly Ladd-Taylor reports, “Like military heroes, mothers with infants in arms paraded down Main Street to the applause of flag-waving townspeople.”
  • Provide funds for state-level programs that focused on maternal and infant hygiene, prenatal health clinics, and visiting nurses for pregnant and new mothers. This represented the first federal health-care entitlement.

The American Medical Association fiercely opposed the state funds as socialistic and “sob stuff.” However, a nervous, all-male Congress — now facing fully enfranchised female voters for the first time — resolved in good bipartisan fashion to give the women what they wanted.

Over the next 10 years, the state funds helped nurses fan out across the land, holding 183,000 prenatal- and child-care conferences, building nearly 3,000 permanent maternity clinics, and visiting more than three million homes. These women were the professionalized, 20th-century version of Ann Reeves Jarvis. Their work contributed to a 10 percent decline in the overall infant mortality rate and a 45 percent drop in deaths by gastrointestinal disease, the ones most preventable though education.

Today, Mother’s Day stems from the work of this powerful group. In 1876, Anna had heard her mother pray that “someone, sometime” might create a commemorative day honoring the service of mothers. More than 25 years later, Anna and a brother talked their mother into joining them in Philadelphia. Ann died on May 9, 1905, and in 1907, Anna organized a modest “Mother’s Day” ceremony at Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, W.Va., which her parents had helped to found.

In 1908, Wanamaker stepped in. A devout Christian, he taught a huge Sunday school class and devoted his Sundays to religious work. Like Ann Jarvis, he also knew personal tragedy. Two of his children had died.

Wanamaker financed Anna Jarvis’ campaign to honor motherhood. The first official and broader Mother’s Day ceremonies convened that year in Grafton and Philadelphia. Wanamaker knew his store’s auditorium would be too small, so he arranged a gathering at the plaza in front of City Hall.

It drew a crowd of 15,000.

After intense lobbying by Anna Jarvis and Wanamaker, President Woodrow Wilson signed a resolution in 1914 declaring the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day. A very personal triumph for Anna Jarvis, the resolution was also part of the broader Maternalist ascendancy.

These matters remain relevant. Notably, the question of whether to require health-insurance policies to include prenatal and maternal coverage is again before Congress. The Maternalists, I suspect, would have given a clear answer.

Allan Carlson is a scholar adviser to the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, which is being built on Independence Mall; president emeritus of the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society; and editor of The Natural Family: An International Journal of Research and Policy. acarlson@profam.org