The Impact of Women and Mothers on Society and Culture
By Anastasia Kaliabakos
Lance Conrad once said, “I can imagine no heroism greater than motherhood.” How true that is! To celebrate my wonderful mom, along with all the mothers who will also be celebrated this Mother’s Day (May 8th, 2022), I thought it would be fitting to explore the origins of this holiday. I enjoy discovering connections between modern celebrations and those of antiquity in my articles, and Mother’s Day certainly did not disappoint.
In ancient Rome, Matronalia (or Matronales Feriae) celebrated the goddess Juno. The word “Matronalia” gives us the modern English word “matron,” who is a married woman in charge of domestic affairs. Juno was in particular regarded in the ancient world as the “mother goddess” and also was considered the goddess of marriage, women, fertility, and beauty. She was said to watch over women who were pregnant to ensure safe deliveries of their children. Therefore, since Matronalia was so deeply connected to Juno, the holiday itself was notably imbued with the themes of motherhood. Celebrated on March 1st—the first day of the year in the Roman calendar—the annual festival emphasized the role of mothers and their importance to Roman culture and society.
Matronalia was considered a holy day and most of the festivities would take place in places of worship, like temples. Traditionally, women would wear their hair adorned with flowers and their clothes loosely in order to express their fertility. Flowers were also offered at Juno’s designated temple. Praying was a common practice during regular worship, but special prayers were offered on Matronalia for pregnant women asking for Juno’s help in birthing their children. At the Temple of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, home, and family, the sacred fire was put out by the Vestal Virgins, who were the priestesses of Vesta. This fire was supposed to be constantly tended to by the priestesses and was not allowed to go out at any other time of the year. On Matronalia, the fire was relit in order to represent birth.
By the 16th century and as Christianity became more widespread, ancient Roman traditions in Europe began to fade into the background. Early Christians in England initially used the day of Matronalia to honor the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ. They would decorate the church, which they referred to as the “Mother Church,” in a similar manner as Juno’s temple, with jewels, flowers and other offerings. Within the next century, a clerical decree broadened the celebration from one focused on theVirgin Mary to include everyday mothers and called the occasion “Mothering Day.” This holiday was especially important for working class mothers in England, as their sons, who could have been anything from trade workers to servants, were allowed to travel home to visit their families for Mothering Day.
When English settlers first arrived in America, they discontinued the tradition of Mothering Day due to the difficulty of their lives and their harsh surroundings. However, the first North American Mother’s Day was conceptualized with Julia Ward Howe’s “Mother’s Day Proclamation” in 1870 and was a different twist on the similar English holiday. Howe was an American poet and author, known primarily for writing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She was also an advocate for the abolition of slavery and for women’s suffrage. After the Civil War, Howe sought to protest the violence and carnage caused by the fighting and called for an international Mother’s Day to celebrate peace and motherhood. An excerpt from her Mother’s Day Proclamation says:
From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says, “Disarm, Disarm!” The sword of murder is not the balance of justice!
Blood does not wipe out dishonor
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war…
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions.
The great and general interests of peace.
By 1873, women’s groups in 18 North American cities observed this new Mother’s Day. In fact, a women’s group led by a woman named Anna Reeves Jarvis began to celebrate an adaptation of Howe’s holiday called Mother’s Friendship Day, which was meant to unite those who had been divided between the Union and Confederate sides of the Civil War. After Anna Reeves Jarvis died, her daughter Anna M. Jarvis campaigned for the establishment of an official Mother’s Day to honor her mother and her values. On May 10, 1908, the first official Mother’s Day celebration took place in both West Virginia and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With this success, Jarvis decided to devote herself to creating an international Mother’s Day.
In 1908, a U.S. Senator from Nebraska named Elmer Burkett proposed making Mother’s Day a national holiday. Although the initial proposal was defeated, the movement did not stop. Ultimately, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed it into national observance, designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.
Today, over 70 countries around the world observe Mother’s Day, and most of their celebrations and traditions are modeled after the United States’ version of the holiday. Mother’s Day is personally one of my favorite holidays because I am able to show my own mom how much I appreciate her. Throughout my life, my mom has made so many sacrifices to give me the opportunity to get an excellent education and has supported me in every way imaginable. Although I hope my mom knows how much I love her no matter what day of the year it is, Mother’s Day is a great excuse for me and my dad to spoil her with gifts and affection.
I hope that you are able to take the time to visit your mother if she is alive or remember her in your heart and your actions. Additionally, remind the women in your life how much they mean to you, whether they are mothers already or hope to be some day.
Anastasia (Stacey) Kaliabakos is a graduate of the Brearley School and is currently a Dana Scholar at the College of the Holy Cross majoring in Classics and Philosophy. She is an opinions editor for Holy Cross’ newspaper, The Spire, editor-in-chief of the Parnassus Classical Journal, and an avid matcha latte consumer. Anastasia has contributed to The WestView News since 2018 and has been featured in NEO Magazine and The National Herald.