Her hoop skirt wouldn't fit in today's standard-issue minivan, and still Julia Ward Howe seems to be enjoying a fashionable comeback this Mother's Day.
Howe is best remembered by history buffs as the woman who wrote the words that became "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the fiery Civil War anthem first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862.
Not so widely known is that eight years later, the woman who wrote "Let us die to make men free" wanted to end war forever. Having seen and survived the violence and economic devastation of the Civil War, Howe dreaded the gathering storm of the Franco-Prussian war. In Boston 1870, she delivered a "Mother's Day Proclamation for Peace," 274 words in which she envisioned "a great and earnest day of counsel" in which mothers of all nationalities would arrive "at the means the great human family can live in peace."
Included in her call to lay down arms: "Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
"We, the women of one country, Will be too tender of those of another country To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
"Her language, even though it's antiquated, is really powerful," says Nanci Olesen, a public-radio contributor and podcaster for Mombo, a nonprofit group whose mission is to "broadcast the everyday truth about motherhood (in order to save the world)." Olesen will host a live Mother's Day celebration Sunday at the Lake Harriet Bandshell, the centerpiece of which will be a reading of Howe's proclamation by actresses Sally Wingert and Isabell Monk O'Connor.
"You don't have to say much about the piece," Olesen says. "If you just listen to what she had to say, you realize that in a lot of ways, we're still in the same place."
Some 136 years later, mothers may find themselves just as frustrated and heartbroken as Howe was by what she saw around her. Since "Mission Accomplished," 2,288 American soldiers have died in Iraq, while Donald Rumsfeld has predicted the insurgency in Iraq could last another 12 years, when today's kindergarteners come of age. The nation's $8.4 trillion deficit, more than $28,000 for each American, has only grown in wartime and now weighs heaviest on our children's futures. And yet, when a mother like Cindy Sheehan speaks out, she is vilified for "using" her grief over her lost son for a political end.
But Howe believed that was what gave mothers a moral weight, as she wrote in a journal, "Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of that human life that they alone bear and know the cost?"
This sentiment is very nearly the mission statement of Mothers Acting Up, a Web-based grassroots group that started in Boulder, Colo., four years ago on Mother's Day. This Saturday at Como Park, the group's local contingent will gather for a potluck picnic meant to reclaim Mother's Day from the grip of Hallmark Cards and eggs Benedict brunches, and to remind us that Howe, who first pushed for a national day for mothers in 1872, actually meant for it to be an activist holiday. Howe's words may be read aloud by those who gather.
"What's haunting is they were written so long ago, and still women haven't raised the alarm the way she wanted them to," says Carrie Pomeroy, a St. Paul mother with a preschooler and an infant, who was so moved by the proclamation (which has enjoyed new life on the Internet) that she decided to organize Saturday's picnic in Howe's honor.
While mothers generally have too much on their to-do list to save the world, too, Howe's exhortation serves as inspiration.
Says Pomeroy, "It's given me a push to speak out for what I believe, which is a start."
If You Go:
What: The Mothers Acting Up Mother's Day potluck-picnic celebration
Where: Como Park West Picnic Shelter between Hamline and Hoyt avenues
When: 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
Bring a dish to share; drinks will be provided. For more information, visit www.mothersactingup.org
What: The Mombo Mother's Day Celebration
Where: Lake Harriet Bandshell
When: 2 p.m. Sunday. For more information, visit www.mombo.org
© 2006 St. Paul Pioneer Press