THIS SUNDAY IS Mother's Day. Restaurants are already booked for brunches and dinners. The flower, candy and card industries await their annual spike in sales.
This is soooo 20th century. The women who conceived Mother's Day would be bewildered by our rituals. They would expect us to be marching in the streets, not honored for our individual sacrifices.
That's because the idea of a mother's day began with women's public activism. In 1858, Anna Reeve Jarvis, a young Appalachian homemaker, organized Mothers' (not Mother's) Work Days in West Virginia to improve the sanitation and decrease the deaths caused by polluted water.
In 1872, Julia Ward Howe, author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," proposed an annual Mothers' Day for Peace. Horrified by the casualties of the American Civil and Franco-Prussian wars, Howe asked, "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?"
For the next 30 years, Americans celebrated Mothers' Day for Peace on June 2. In 1907, Anna Jarvis, the daughter of the original West Virginian organizer,
launched a campaign to establish a national Mother's Day. Heavily lobbied by the flower and card industries, Congress declared in 1914 that Mother's Day would be celebrated on the second Sunday in May.
But the holiday did not last as a day to promote peace. The growing consumer culture gradually redefined Mother's Day as a celebration of each woman's private sacrifices. As the Florists' Review, a trade journal, so bluntly put it, "This was a holiday that could be exploited."
And so it was. The embryonic advertising industry taught Americans how to honor their mothers -- by buying flowers. Outraged by florists, who sold each carnation for the exorbitant price of $1, Anna Jarvis tried to fight against those who "would undermine Mother's Day with their greed."
Clearly, she failed. But growing numbers of women have been resurrecting her mother's 19th-century vision of Mother's Day. On Sunday, in Washington and 15 other American cities, thousands of women are holding peace rallies and parades. In Albuquerque, Boulder, Cincinnati and Los Angeles, for example, "Mothers Acting Up" have organized events to promote peaceful solutions to conflict.
Closer to home, women in the Bay Area are sponsoring two Mother's Day peace celebrations, both meant to entertain and engage the entire family. On Saturday, dozens of interfaith, peace and justice organizations are sponsoring a "Mother's Day Speak-up for Peace" event at 1 p.m. in Lindley Meadow, in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
Between 1 and 3 p.m. on Sunday, at Berkeley's Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park (at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Center Street), folksinger Betsy Rose will be joined by musicians and poets, followed by prayers and reflections for peace.
In addition to promoting peace, some women activists are using Mother's Day as an occasion to publicize the fact that our nation reveres the idea of motherhood more than actual mothers.
According to Save the Children's annual index, which measures the well- being of mothers and children, the U.S. ranks 11th among 117 other countries. We may be a military superpower, but we resemble a developing nation when when it comes to providing mothers with child care, job training, health care, an adequate minimum wage and paid parental leave.
Nineteenth-century women dared to dream of a day that encourages women to use their influence to promote peace. At the dawn of a new century, we can best honor their vision with our own civic engagement and activism.
For Bay Area Mother's Day information: www.unitedforpeace.org/ and http: //www.peacehost.net/EPI-Calc/
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle