Introduction of Mother's Day
Prof. Dr. Astrid Messerschmidt / Educational Science
Photo: UniService Transfer

"Thanks for the flowers. We would prefer rights"

The educationalist Astrid Messerschmidt on the introduction of Mother's Day on May 13, 1923.

Mother's Day in itself already existed in ancient Greece and among the Romans. In its current form, however, it was shaped by the English and U.S. women's movements. How did this come about?

Messerschmidt: In ancient Greece, the worship of motherhood was related to its divine representation, as in the spring festivals of the goddess Rhea, the mother of Zeus. This homage in a world of many deities was to the fertility of nature and was strongly influenced by the seasons. This context is clearly distinguishable from modern worldviews. In this respect, I do not see any connections here. In 1865, the US-American Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis started a mothers' movement called Mothers' Friendships Day . A few years later, Julia Ward Howe founded a Mothers' Peace Day initiative with the goal that sons should no longer fall victim to wars. Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis' daughter, Methodist Anna Marie Jarvis, is considered the creator of today's Mother's Day. In Europe, Marianne Hainisch of Austria can be considered the founder of Mother's Day. Hainisch was a member of the Vienna Women's Employment Association, founded in 1866, and is considered a pioneer of the Austrian bourgeois women's movement. She was committed to the vocational training of lower-middle-class women and advocated the establishment of Realgymnasien for girls and the admission of women to higher education. In the context of popular education, she worked to prepare young people for their later parenthood and advocated parenting classes in the upper grades of elementary school. Her statements testify to a conservative image of women with motherhood at the center, while at the same time committing herself to women's education. With her commitment to Mother's Day, which has been celebrated in Austria since 1924, she wanted to give mothers more social recognition. This recognition was also at stake when Mother's Day was introduced in Germany on May 13, 1923. Here, however, the whole thing was hardly connected with the women's movement.

Women were no longer only concerned with the recognition of mothers. Today, the leading force is generally considered to be the American Anna Marie Jarvis, who managed to have Mother's Day introduced as a national holiday in the USA as early as 1914. How did she achieve this?

Messerschmidt: On May 12, 1907, Anna Marie Jarvis organized a Memorial Mothers Day Meeting in Grafton (West Virginia, USA) - the day fell on the Sunday after the second anniversary of her mother's death. Thus, it is more of a Mother's Memorial Day. In 1909, Mother's Day was already celebrated in 45 states in the USA. Obviously, the idea was in tune with the spirit of the times. The first official Mother's Day was celebrated in 1908. The staging was very emotional and in this way of appealing to feelings of adoration, Jarvis advocated for Mother's Day. Both living and deceased mothers were to be honored. From my perspective, this effort was successful because it fit the times and did not disrupt the existing gender order. Arguments were also made for a necessary "elevation of morality" against moral decay. The "honoring of the mother" was intended to "support the family and ennoble the young," as Marianne Hainisch put it in an essay from 1926. She illustrates the simultaneity of conservative family ideals and emancipation, which is true of the whole event surrounding the founding of Mother's Day.

The U.S. Congress enacted the so-called "Joint Resolution Designating the Second Sunday in May as Mother's Day" on May 8, 1914, and thus Mother's Day was celebrated as a national holiday for the first time in 1914. In Great Britain, the concept of Mother's Day was quickly adopted and from there spread further to Switzerland (1917), Finland and Norway (1918), Sweden (1919) and Austria (1924). In 1922/1923, the movement also reached Germany, and here it was linked from the beginning to a restorative family model in which the male side was assigned to production, and thus to wage labor, and the female side was assigned to reproduction, and thus to family labor.

In Germany and Europe, the 1920s were simultaneously marked by the awakening of women. In contrast, the German Mother's Day in the Weimar Republic served to reinforce the traditional gender order by symbolically valorizing motherhood. But the exaltation of the mother went and goes hand in hand with the devaluation and exploitation of female labor, which today has increasingly been shifted to migrant service providers without strengthening their legal situation and expanding emancipatory concerns accordingly in terms of migration society. For the German women's movement in the second half of the 20th century, Mother's Day was clearly restorative. In 1977, the Munich Women's Forum formulated on a poster, "Thanks for the flowers. We'd rather have rights!"

In Germany, Mother's Day actually got off to a very apolitical start through the Association of German Flower Shop Owners with the slogan "Honor your mother" as a day for wishing for flowers, and was then finally officially confirmed as the first Mother's Day on May 13, 1923, by the association's chairman, Rudolf Knauer.

Messerschmidt: The initiative of the florists may seem apolitical, but in the spirit of the times and in the aftermath of the First World War, it was already linked to the image of the soldier's mother. For Knauer, it was certainly primarily a matter of business interests. At the same time, the year 1923 is already closely linked to the Nazi movement, when a putsch was attempted in Munich and failed. The strong right-wing forces in Bavaria turned against the Weimar constitution. The so-called "Hitler Putsch" was later reinterpreted and transfigured into a heroic uprising. During the founding phase of Mother's Day in Germany, the "Preparatory Committee for German Mother's Day," which had been established specifically for this purpose, was integrated two years later into the "Working Group for Public Health," which had been founded with the goal of propagating "good morals" and "German dignity" and counteracting the "decay of the family." People turned against the image of the modern woman who confidently represented her own interests and also wanted to be fashionably conspicuous in public.

The first associations of women around the NSDAP also emerged around 1923. Their tasks were primarily to help with election campaigns, to feed and clothe SA men, and to care for the wounded. One of these early associations was the German Women's Order (DFO), founded and led by Elsbeth Zander, which was recognized as a women's organization of the party in 1926 and incorporated as a branch of the NSDAP in 1928. The Nazi women's organizations largely rejected the goals of the proletarian and bourgeois women's movements and claimed to form a "new women's movement." After 1930, when the NSDAP became more attractive to women, there were repeated disputes about the orientation of the NS women's organizations. No uniform picture emerges here that is reduced to the role of mother. Therefore, I would also relativize the significance of Mother's Day in this context. The day was appropriated, but more important was the contribution of women in implementing political programs.

In the Third Reich, Mother's Day was linked to the idea of the Germanic master race; mothers with many children were considered heroines of the people. In 1938, for the first time, there was also the Cross of Honor of the German Mother. Did this development amount to an abuse of this day?

Messerschmidt: The mother cult of the National Socialist movement is often overestimated. It is true that the "Day of Remembrance and Honor of German Mothers" was introduced as early as 1934 and remained part of the National Socialist holiday year, and Propaganda Minister Goebbels established the "Reich Mothers' Service in the German Women's Work" in the same year. But the gender policy of National Socialism was decidedly ambivalent. It oscillated between the reduction of women to their role as mothers and the implementation of the völkisch racial policy, in the success of which women who belonged to the so-called "Volksgemeinschaft" were supposed to participate and did participate, not only as bearers of "hereditarily healthy" and, according to racist criteria, "pure" offspring, but also as functionaries in the institutions of the Nazi administration, although never in leadership positions. Thus, the Nazis offered women who were recognized as belonging to the people fields of activity and opportunities for advancement beyond the role of mother. The Nazis, however, recognized the propagandistic potential of the day and awarded the "Cross of Honor of the German Mother" on this day to Volkszuhörhörige German women with many children or with sons killed in the war. However, the veneration of the "German mother" was exclusive. It applied to mothers who met the membership criteria of the "Volksgemeinschaft." In contrast, Jewish mothers, women and girls, Sintize and Romnja, and the women in the conquered and occupied countries were at the mercy of persecution and mass murder. The supposed veneration of the mother was racially and anti-Semitically divided. In historical women's studies, we speak of an antinatalist policy in the context of the progressive radicalization of deportation, internment, forced labor, and war of extermination. That is, a policy that prevented motherhood, especially through forced abortions. Only certain "mothers with many children" were considered "heroines of the people". This is important to note, because only then does it become clear that Nazi gender policy was dominated by völkisch racial policy. Women who were considered to belong in national community politics made a career in it and were in demand not only as mothers. The veneration of the maternal is literally only half the truth about the gender politics of the National Socialists, who, at the latest after 1939, needed and got the cooperation of women in the implementation of völkisch politics, robbery, and the expansion of the so-called "Lebensraum." As for Mother's Day, I would not speak of "abuse" here, but rather of a special use of this day for the benefit of Nazi ideology - insofar as it provided an occasion for veneration for women who belonged to the German national community. Mother's Day was not crucial to the identification of German women classified as "Aryan" with the Nazi system. From the beginning, there was much enthusiasm among these women for the Führer cult and its mass staging. Although women were initially pushed out of higher professional careers and admissions to universities were also restricted, this policy changed to some extent with the onset of the war in order to attract more women to jobs outside the family. More women were needed in industry to speed up armaments production and because men were at the front. That women did not allow themselves to be pushed out of academic educational careers altogether can also be seen, for example, in the events at Munich University in 1943, when Gauleiter Paul Giesler experienced the vocal displeasure of female students because he made derogatory comments about women's studies. So despite the propaganda of motherhood, these women were still at the university.

Mother's Day: a celebration for florists

Anna Marie Jarvis distanced herself from your idea over the years, saying, "I wanted it to be a day of reflection, not profit." She largely blamed the florists, whose greed had undermined one of the "noblest, purest movements and celebrations." To this day, Mother's Day is not enshrined in law in Germany. Its date is based on agreements of business associations. What significance does Mother's Day still have in today's society?

Messerschmidt: The commercialization of Mother's Day has probably contributed to relativizing its worshipful character and making it seem more profane. For today's women's movements, this day has no meaning, except as a sign of a gender model that may be outdated but has still not been overcome, and which is now predominantly evident in western Germany, while the eastern states have a different tradition of mothering. Due to the anti-fascist state self-image, the GDR dispensed with Mother's Day and instead celebrated International Women's Day, which had been banned in Germany in 1933 and whose celebration in the GDR was also associated with an anti-fascist commitment. Yet the intra-family division of labor between women and men hardly changed fundamentally in the GDR either. Nevertheless, the East-West difference is interesting for today's conditions. While in the Federal Republic of Germany a conservative image of the family dominated for a long time, which made it difficult for women with children to have any occupation, the GDR's gender policy focused on mothers working full time and provided a large number of childcare places for this purpose, even for children under the age of three. To this day, these differences can be seen in the unequal provision of daycare in the East and West. While more than 50 percent of children under the age of three attend a daycare center in the east, the figure in the west is only around 30 percent.

In addition, the moral pressure on working mothers in Germany is still pronounced, whereby this not only relates to the responsibility for caring for the children, but also to a successful professional life. Today's modern woman must succeed in both. Most women who have an interesting career consider solutions to reconcile child and career. However, the structural conditions for this are extremely difficult in many places. Mother's Day, on the other hand, stands for an either/or, which very few women want today and very few mothers can afford.

Uwe Blass 

Prof. Dr. Astrid Messerschmidt habilitated in education in 2009 at the Department of Human Sciences at Darmstadt Technical University. She worked, among other things, as a professor of intercultural education/lifelong education at the Karlsruhe University of Education. Since 2016, she has been researching and teaching as a professor of educational science with a focus on gender and diversity at Bergische Universität.

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