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  • ‘True womanhood was motherly’: The social role of Mother’s Day

‘True womanhood was motherly’: The social role of Mother’s Day


Mother’s Day began in gratitude and conflict. Thankful for her late mother’s devotion, Anna Jarvis initiated a service of remembrance and gratitude for all mothers on 10 May, 1908, at her Methodist Church in West Virginia. Mother’s Day was a religious event, as was the older English tradition of Mothering Sunday in which worshippers returned home to their ‘mother church’. But as this new celebration of Mother’s Day spread around the English-speaking world, it preserved in public and private ritual a particular idea of womanhood. It asserted that true womanhood was motherly. 

In the early twentieth century, the idea of motherhood as woman’s only calling was under fire. Mother’s Day became established in the church and society just as first-wave feminism called for women to step outside the home and into the public sphere. Women’s emancipation was making headlines, women were beginning to enter the professions, stand for parliament, lobby governments, ride motorbikes, and fly planes. Women were campaigning for the right to vote, and for the right to preach in churches.

At the unusually progressive Bourke Street Congregational Church in Sydney, 1930, feminist Linda Littlejohn was invited to preach a Mothers’ Day sermon. She spoke on ‘Unsatisfied Womanhood’, celebrating Amy Johnson’s recent solo flight from England to Australia and arguing that women might do things other than produce children. Mother’s Day became established in a period of great change. The very idea of what it meant to be a woman was being contested.

Typical Mother’s Day sermons reinforced the idea that a woman’s highest calling in life was to be a mother, and that God ordained women to motherhood. In 1926, in the Melbourne suburb of Northcote, the minister preached on ‘A Mother’s Love’ and, in Brighton, on ‘The Perfect Home’. The perfect woman was a loving mother who stayed at home, and women without children could ‘mother’ in community and church organisations, caring for children, the ill and elderly.

At the youth-oriented evening service at Brisbane’s Ann Street Presbyterian Church, the minister preached on ‘Honour Thy Mother’, stressing ‘the influence exercised by a mother upon her son’ and the development of his sense of ‘duty’ to family and the world. The stability of society depended on dutiful men raised by faithful mothers. Disrupting the motherly ideal of womanhood risked upsetting the very order of things.


'Anna Jarvis, who began the tradition in her church, was so horrified at the commercialisation of Mother’s Day that she sought to have it cancelled. By the 1930s many Australians argued that Mother’s Day cynically manipulated sentiment for profit.'


Young men were encouraged to observe Mother’s Day in the hope that attending church and hearing sermons about mothers would encourage their sense of social responsibility. In 1920, the Port Pirie Recorder reported that Mother’s Day services were ‘character building’. The remote South Australian industrial town, with its docks and smelter and seasonal itinerant workers, had many more men than women; without women’s so-called ‘ennobling influence’, social problems resulted.

Seeing the potential for Mother’s Day to remind men of their duty as good sons and husbands, the churches ran a united campaign for people to ‘Go to Church’ for their mothers. The men in the boarding houses and the ships at port were given white flowers to wear in honour of ‘the sacrifices made by the mothers during the war’. The Reverend Webb preached on ‘A Perfect Son’. The local newspaper went out of its way to deny that Mother’s Day was ‘set apart for preaching at men’, but there’s no doubt that this was precisely the intention. Mother’s Day promoted an idea of womanhood that reinforced social order.

Beginning in the churches, Mother’s Day was quickly coopted for patriotic purposes, even promoting enlistment during the Great War. Military conscription had been rejected by popular vote, but the Adelaide Register reminded readers that good mothers voluntarily sent their sons to war, even if it broke their hearts, and that Mother’s Day was for remembering women left at home and their patriotic sacrifice. In 1922, Lewis Cohen, Lord Mayor of Adelaide, told young people to honour their mothers on Mother’s Day because they ‘determine the destiny of Australia’. The speech reflected the ‘populate or perish’ concerns of White Australia, but it also alluded to women’s dutiful moral guardianship. Women, in turn, used the idea that the moral guidance they provided in the home might be extended to the nation and they pressed governments for legislative and welfare reform. Australian women were remarkable in their maternalist political agenda.

While political and religious concerns favoured the kind of womanhood represented by Mother’s Day with its accrued layers of duty, commercialisation entrenched the stereotype beyond the church. The Catholic Women’s Social Guild proposed changing Mother’s Day to Our Lady’s Day in an attempt to rescue it from Protestantism’s ‘capitalising of sentiment’. Anna Jarvis, who began the tradition in her church, was so horrified at the commercialisation of Mother’s Day that she sought to have it cancelled. By the 1930s many Australians argued that Mother’s Day cynically manipulated sentiment for profit. Ironically, in conflict over the nature of women, the idea of motherhood as women’s sacred calling was ultimately preserved by the secular forces of unholy commerce.





Kerrie Handasyde is an adjunct senior lecturer at Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity, Melbourne. She researches the cultural history of Christianity with a special interest in women's history, and is the author of God in the Landscape: Studies in the Literary History of Australian Protestant Dissent (Bloomsbury, 2021).

Main image: American servicemen stationed at a British airfield, choosing Mother's Day gifts and placing orders at the canteen at their base, April 1944. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Kerrie Handasyde, Mother's Day, Church, Womanhood, Feminism



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Existing comments

In the Catholic, Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Traditions womanhood is sacred. Our Lady/The Theotokos transcends motherhood. She is actually seen as cooperating with Almighty God in consenting to bear Jesus. In these Traditions every part of the traditional story, based on the Bible, is sacred. In the Catholic Tradition this is all part of the Magisterium. With the rise of Protestantism, especially its Reformed Tradition, Mary and all the beautiful art she inspired came out of churches. This, to me, was an utter tragedy. England, especially under the Puritans and Scotland under Knox and the Kirk took all this emphasis on the feminine side of religion out. People like the Anglo-Catholics and Mary Jarvis were, I think, attempting to bring this feminine side to religion, with its joy, back. It was so easy for Mothers' Day to be sidetracked. Mary would not, I believe, encourage men to join up and 'answer the call' in WW 1. Her blessing would be on the incredibly strong Women's Anti-War Movement of the time. I say this as someone whose grandfather served in WW 1 and whose father in WW 2. Jesus differentiated very clearly between the Realm of Caesar and that of God.

Edward Fido | 03 May 2022  

The response of the Catholic Women's Social Guild to the 'capitalising of sentiment' evident in the commercialising of Mothers' Day reflects leading Catholic women of the era's recognition of the spiritual significance of motherhood, exhorting all Catholic women "to sanctify the day by receiving Holy Communion and urging other members of the family to do so." ( Melbourne, The Advocate: A Catholic "Mothers' Day", 1/4/1941).
The Guild's prophetic re-naming of the occasion as "Our Lady's Day" unabashedly honours the dignity and status of Mary: Mother of Jesus, Mother of the Church and pre-eminent exemplar of life-nurturing, faithful discipleship for women and men across cultures the world over today.

John RD | 03 May 2022  

I note that John RD's exercept from The Advocate quoting the Catholic Women's Social Guild on Mothers' Day was from 1/4/41: years before either of us were born. The CWSC's action at that time was praiseworthy. Times have, however, moved on and we need to look at the issue from a relevant, contemporay angle. Women were among Jesus' inner circle and his strongest supporters and were the first to know of the Resurrection. They remained steadfast whilst the disciples were either denying him or running away. Most of them were probably mothers, but that is not why they are mentioned in the New Testament. Giving birth and rearing children are both highly praiseworthy, but women can and do, do far more. To concentrate on motherhood and to deny them other roles in both the Church and the world is something I cannot condone. It is both ludicrous and incredibly short sighted and redolent of Australia in the immediate post-World War 2 period. Those days are long past.

Edward Fido | 04 May 2022  
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Faithful Catholic mothers of the and kind who formed the Catholic Women's Social Guild of the era identified in Kerrie Handasyde's reference to the source I've cited have been and are a benefit to society at any time, Edward. We don't, of course, see them raising glasses outside parliament to celebrate the striking down of laws that protect the unborn and support their right to the most basic of all human rights.

John RD | 10 May 2022  

Surely the 'theologisation' of Mother's Day is just as much a misappropriation of the original idea as is its 'commercialisation'? It's not as if the Day has some ancient history. It began in 1908 with a memorial service organised by Anna Marie Jarvis, a Methodist, to honour the legacy of her mother - especially her work as a peace activist - after which she campaigned to have a Day set aside nationally to honour all mothers and their work in the community. There is no evidence that Jarvis saw any religious metaphor or symbolism in what she was doing, any more than she saw an opportunity for business to make money from it. She simply wanted to honour her mother, and then all mothers. Pure and simple.

Ginger Meggs | 05 May 2022  
Show Responses

"Misappropriation" by "theologisation"? Why imagine that Anna Marie Jarvis, a woman of Christian faith, would have had a problem with emphasising the dignity of motherhood and honouring Mary's role in the Incarnation?

John RD | 11 May 2022  

I have no need to 'imagine' with what Jarvis might have had a problem, John. All I can know is what she did and the reasons that she expressed. And they weren't about 'Mary's role in the incarnation'.

Ginger Meggs | 16 May 2022  

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