Last Thursday I received an email from David Jones reminding me of their "Great Savings for Mother’s Day", and telling me to hurry because there were only two days left to grab a bargain in women’s underwear. (Inexplicably, the email also mentioned that I could save 30 per cent on all full-priced men’s underwear too, as long as I bought it before the second Sunday in May.)
Over the last fortnight, I have received at least six emails from David Jones reminding me of Mother’s Day and offering specials on fragrances, shoes, manchester, small electrical appliances and vacuum cleaners, things that David Jones has chosen for me "as a special range of gifts from brands your mother will love".
David Jones is far from the only company to behave this way, and the transformation of Mother’s Day into a commercial exercise is just one story in the long history of the relentless monetisation of love and intimacy in the marketplace. In 1848, Marx and Engels remarked in the Communist Manifesto, "The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation." Our very feelings of love have been commercialised, drowned in "the icy water of egotistical calculation".
Real love for a mother is now manifested in the gift of a small electrical appliance. Anything less than a commercial purchase marks us as "cheapskates", although young children have been able to retain some exemptions from the market rules around gift giving.
Perhaps the biggest corporate beneficiary of Mother’s Day is the cut flower industry, which in the US has its second-highest spike on Mother’s Day (after Valentine’s Day). In 1918, the Society of American Florists coined the slogan "Say it with flowers", and it was around that time that the cut flowers industry helped to make Mother’s Day into what is now one of the most delirious feast days of late modern capitalism.
The origins of Mother’s Day are often attributed to Julia Ward Howe, abolitionist and writer of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Howe wanted to have one day in the year recognised as a day for women to oppose war, not on their own account so much as on behalf of their sons. In her Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870, she noted, "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." Many suffragettes got behind Howe — not because they wanted lingerie or vacuum cleaners, but because they wanted an end to desperate circumstances and to subordination.
However, the celebration of Mother’s Day in its modern form is more the result of the efforts of Anna Jarvis. After her mother died in May 1905, Jarvis campaigned for Mother’s Day as a day to honour unselfish Christian mothers, to be marked around the anniversary of her mother’s death. Jarvis faced opposition from women’s groups such as the Women’s Committee of the American Socialist Party which wanted instead a "Woman’s Day", or the Congress of Mothers, who found Jarvis’ proposal to be too sentimental. After several attempts, a Mother’s Day resolution was passed by the US Congress in 1914, and President Woodrow Wilson then issued the first Mother’s Day proclamation. Jarvis also got the national Sunday School convention to endorse the celebration of Mother’s Day in Sunday Schools.
But what really cemented Mother’s Day as a commercial bonanza were florist associations. Leigh Eric Schmidt quotes a perhaps overstated claim in a 1913 issue of the Florists’ Review: "For the success of the ‘day’, we are to credit ourselves, us, we, the members of the trade who know a good thing when they see it and who are sufficiently progressive to push it along — Mother’s day is ours; we made it; we made it practically unaided and alone." The greeting card industry followed in the wake of the florists. The National Association of Greeting Card Manufacturers’ etiquette book of 1926 suggested that "every mother should receive a card with just the right sentiment".
Anna Jarvis tried to preserve Mother’s Day as a "holy day", and later copyrighted it and its decorations. Jarvis argued to no avail that the "charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest, truest Movements and celebrations known." Despite Jarvis’s distaste, Mother’s Day became the site of sentimental goo, and by the 1950s it had become the second-largest retail sales holiday in the US.
Few people are now exempted from the commercial demands of Mother’s Day. It was until recently the practice for young children to bring breakfast in bed to their mothers, with maybe a little bunch of wild flowers and a handmade card on the tray, although even this image of simplicity was then coopted into the market, commercialised on greeting cards. This exemption for young children from the market in love is almost eroded away, with children as well as adults now being told that love can best be expressed through a commercial card, an expensive bouquet and a consumer good.
When they are asked what they want for Mother’s Day (or on other occasions), women often reply with the self-denying answer "Nothing". If we are really serious about opposing the commercialisation of our lives, that is not a bad answer. An even better answer might be to ask for some time out from the market, and to think of Mother’s Day as Julia Ward Howe did: a day of reflection by women on how to create a place where our children can flourish, and where they are turned neither into robotic consumers, nor into death fodder for wars of aggression.
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