Mother’s Day is, as with many things, something we celebrate every year without ever being fully aware of its radical history. It turns out, back in 1800s America, Mothers Day traditions began as a way to honour a remarkable woman: activist and mother, Ann Jarvis.
‘Mother’s Day began in 1858 when Ann Jarvis, an Appalachian housewife and mother to at least eleven children, organised “Mother’s Work Days” to improve sanitation, in a time when polluted water and disease-bearing pests were major causes of death in poor communities like hers. Jarvis was also a peace activist who organised Mother’s Day Work Clubs to care for soldiers on both sides of the Civil War.
When Ann Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, campaigned for an official Mother’s Day to honour her own mother’s lifelong activism. In 1914, her efforts succeeded: Congress passed a resolution making Mother’s Day official.’
In the spirit of the radical history of Mother’s Day, here are some remarkable mothers we admire.
The Focus E15 campaign was born in September 2013 when a group of young mothers were threatened with eviction from their emergency accommodation by Newham Council. They faced being relocated as far away as Manchester, Hastings and Birmingham.
This attempt by Newham Council to displace the mothers from London, removing them and their children from their families and local support networks, prompted them to get organised and demand ‘social housing, not social cleansing’. They occupied a disused block of flats on the nearly empty Carpenters Estate in Stratford, East London, drawing attention to the fact that people are being forced out of London due to a lack of affordable housing while thousands of perfectly good social housing units sit empty.
After winning their own battle, the group has occupied other buildings and supported other struggles to protest local housing policy, fighting for better housing rights for all.
Kinning Park Complex
When the local council announced in 1996 they would no longer fund a well used, multi purpose community centre centre, a young mothers and toddlers group occupied the building. Staging a 55 day sit in and march on George Square, local campaigners claimed the building belonged to the taxpayer. Arguing that they relied on the building for its after school service, they continued to blocked the entrance until the decision was taken to give control to the community. It's now been renovated, and is used by a number of social enterprises and community groups once more.
Motherhood in art
Artists have been approaching the subject of motherhood for decades, centuries. Motherhood has been a conceptual feminist framework, a banal fact, it has been a subject in and of itself, or an invisible antagonist in the male dominated art world.
‘Louise Bourgeois is known for frequently making work centred on maternity. Her drawings, paintings, and sculptures of spiders—one of her most lauded motifs—are known as odes to her own mother’s maternal affection.’
‘The friend (the spider – why the spider?) because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider. She could also defend herself, and me, by refusing to answer ‘stupid’, inquisitive, embarrassing, personal questions.’
Carrie Mae Weem’s photographs can be tender and confrontational at the same time. In her Kitchen Table series, a tender stillness takes over.
Work to be done
We need to end systemic healthcare disparities for Black women, including increased mortality rates. Black women in the UK are four times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth: Here is an organisation to support that is working to raise awareness and change that and an Instagram recommendation for @CandiceBraithwaite, who’s published a book on the subject, who we also follow for her incredible, joyful takes on motherhood and style.
Black motherhood can also be a source of “Violent Joy” (in the words of historian Kellie Carter Jackson), a persistence in the face of white supremacy’s continual machinery.
‘Characterised throughout American history as symbols of crisis, trauma, and grief, these women consistently reject those narratives through world-making of their own… Joy is a weapon’