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

  • 03 May 2022
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