Why the radical history of Mother’s Day matters today

The Women's March is honoring the roots of Mother's Day with this new campaign.
Image: Women’s March

If you thought Mother’s Day started out as a ploy by greeting card companies to pocket your hard-earned money, you’re in for a big surprise.

Though the annual American holiday became a commercial affair years after its founding, it actually began in 1905 as a way to honor the legacy of activist Ann Reeves Jarvis.

In 1868, decades before her death, Jarvis organized a “Mothers’ Friendship Day” to help women from opposing sides of the Civil War talk to each other and find a path to reconciliation.

If that sounds like a timely approach to all that ails America today, you’re not alone. Organizers at the Women’s March thought so, too, and launched a Mother’s Day project called “Daring Discussions” in the spirit of bringing a divided country closer together.

The idea of talking to your Trump-voting uncle or your Clinton-supporting sister may sound like the worst way to spend an afternoon, but the Women’s March is challenging people to tackle tough conversations in the name of healing.

“The only reason to have a daring discussion with someone is youre coming from a place of love,” says Sarah Sophie Flicker, strategic advisor to the Womens March and creative director of Art Not War. “You’re wanting to understand them, and wanting them to understand you.”

Before your eyes roll into the back of your head because you just don’t think such a conversation is possible anymore, consider that the Women’s March organizers had countless intense exchanges about people’s values and experiences in the run-up to its January post-inauguration protest.

“The only reason to have a daring discussion with someone is youre coming from a place of love.”

“We were constantly having varying discussions about race, privilege, class, gender, immigrants, non-immigrants…” says Paola Mendoza, artistic director of the Womens March. “They were full of love, but at times uncomfortable, courageous, and scary for various people.”

The Women’s March also isn’t sending you into what you think of as enemy territory unprepared. The group has assembled a comprehensive toolkit with instructions on how to start a discussion, what to discuss, when to stop, and how to recognize your own privilege.

For those skeptical of that terminology, Flicker says talking about privilege doesn’t have to revolve around feelings of guilt. Instead, it’s just an acknowledgement that you may hold power that someone else doesn’t because of your race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and so on. And someone may hold power that you don’t.

The goal of these discussions isn’t to change minds, either. Instead, they’re about being able to relate to each other in person, rather than fighting over political memes on Facebook and calling that a meaningful interaction. The hope is that you’ll correct misperceptions of someone else or come to know and respect their experiences more deeply, no matter how either of you voted.

It’s also OK for people to be strategic about who they talk to and about what, says Mendoza.

“We need to go back to the powerful idea of talking to each other,” she says, “but that doesnt mean I have to accept other people’s thoughts and ideas that oppress me not at all.”

In other words, don’t feel compelled to sacrifice personal safety or emotional well-being, but instead focus on repairing relationships that you know can be fruitful, even if they’ve been recently fractured.

Mendoza also suggests telling personal stories that affect the way you see the world and to avoid speaking on behalf of other people’s experiences if they’re not somehow connected to your own.

This might all sound rather non-urgent compared to the drumbeat of news about Jim Comey’s firing, the Russia investigation, and the repeal of Obamacare, but Flicker says that finding ways to help connect people who disagree is just as essential as marching in the streets.

“Resisting isnt enough,” she says. “We need to … communicate as well. Those two things have to go hand in hand.”

No doubt Ann Reeves Jarvis would agree. If she could find a way to engage mothers on both sides of the Civil War, you can probably find a way to have a hard conversation about politics with someone in your life, too.

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