Mother’s Day - A Peace Holiday
Sally Roesch Wagner

The first Mother’s Day Proclamation in the US called for women to join together to create a peaceful world. Ironically, it was written by a woman known to history for writing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Julia Ward Howe joined friends on a popular Washington picnic excursion to view a Civil War battle in 1861. The result would become history. Horrified by the carnage she witnessed, Howe wrote her “Battle Hymn” and sold it for four dollars to the Atlantic Monthly, which published it the following year. A passionate anti-slavery advocate, Howe framed her anthem as a tribute to the Union soldiers who were giving their lives that the slaves might be free. The poem made little stir, however, and might have gone unnoticed if someone had not set it to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.” The moving military cadence coupled with her Old Testament language swept the North. President Lincoln reportedly was moved to tears upon hearing it for the first time.

Howe has been remembered for her authorship of this stirring anthem but forgotten for her dedicated suffrage work. A founder of the American Woman Suffrage Association, an editor of the Woman’s Journal (both with Lucy Stone) and an eloquent suffrage speaker, Howe was also president of the New England Woman’s Club for nearly 40 years, dedicated to promoting social reform.

Ironically, Howe’s passion for world peace is also forgotten. Following intently the course of the Franco-Prussian war, Howe realized that the Germans cynically were “intending to make the opportunity serve for the forcible annexation of provinces long coveted.” She later explained in her Reminiscences, 1819-1899, (Boston, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899):
“I was visited by a sudden feeling of the cruel and unnecessary character of the contest. It seemed to me a return to barbarism, the issue having been one which might easily have been settled without bloodshed. The question forced itself upon me, ‘Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone bear and know the cost?’ I had never thought of this before. The august dignity of motherhood and its terrible responsibilities now appeared to me in a new aspect, and I could think of no better way of expressing my sense of these than that of sending forth an appeal to womanhood throughout the world, which I then and there composed.”

The result was her “Mother’s Day Proclamation” issued in May 1870.

Howe devoted the next two years to her dream of holding an international peace congress of women in London, “and at once began a wide task of correspondence for the realization of this plan.” She translated her Proclamation into French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Swedish, and distributed copies of it around the world. When she arrived in London in 1872, however, she could not garner sufficient support. English women were occupied with the cause of women’s rights, and her envisioned congress was never held. Howe continued to hold yearly Mother’s Day peace events on her own, never giving up her dream of a worldwide peace movement led by women.

Sally Roesch Wagner is the Executive Director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation in Fayetteville and a member of the Syracuse Peace Council Advisory Board. This article is adapted from one published by the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation.