Julia Ward Howe

Happy Mother’s Day! Seems like a good time to remember our mothers, sometimes putting them on pedestals, serving them breakfast in bed, giving cards, chocolates and flowers. But the first idea for Mothers’ Day was proposed by a visionary woman who wanted to mobilize women to ban the scourge of war. So maybe celebrate Mother’s Day by doing something for peace!
Daniel Buttry

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910)

Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. 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.
Mother’s Day Proclamation, Julia Ward Howe

Sarah Choate Sears/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Sarah Choate Sears/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Julia Ward Howe is perhaps best known for her poem put to music The Battle Hymn of the Republic. But another composition of hers, the Mother’s Day Proclamation may be her more developed response to the wars of her age. Rather than seeing war as God’s judgment she called for women to take responsibility to change what was happening.

Julia Ward was born into a banking and Wall Street family which at a young age put her in contact with some of the leading lights of the age in literature, honing her intelligence and poetry. She married Samuel Gridley Howe, a social reformer who founded the Perkins School of the Blind in Boston. They had six children, but she chafed at the restrictions of domestic life. She began getting involved in lectures, writing and travel. Eventually the strains on the marriage led to a separation. Perhaps because of some of her experiences she became a critic of many of the social conventions shaping the lives of women.

The Howes were active in the abolitionist movement, though like many white abolitionists Julia held views of the racial inferiority of blacks even though she was against slavery. Some of those views expressed in her writings outraged the leading abolitionist writer William Lloyd Garrison. Following a visit to Abraham Lincoln in 1861 Julia wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to the tune of the popular “John’s Brown Body.” Her song became the anthem for the Union cause during the Civil War.

After the war Howe turned to the issues of pacifism and women’s suffrage. She helped found the New England Women’s club and the New England Woman Suffrage Association. Then later she joined the great suffragette Lucy Stone in leading the American Woman Suffrage Association. Besides voting rights she advocated strongly for women’s education.

John Elliot/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

John Elliot/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Then in 1870 she founded the Women’s Journal, a weekly magazine about suffragist issues. This became her platform for a campaign to mobilize women around the world for peace. The horrors of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War had shaken the U.S. and Europe. Her appeal became known as the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” an “appeal to womanhood throughout the world” to stand together for peace. “Arise, all women who have hearts,” she proclaimed, “Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!”

Besides decrying the way war was undoing all that women did in their mothering, she called for the gathering of a “general congress of women without limit of nationality May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient And at the earliest period consistent with its objects, To promote the alliance of the different nationalities, The amicable settlement of international questions,”

As her campaign continued she began to call for June 2nd to be Mother’s Day. When that effort did not succeed she tried to have July 4th turned into Mother’s Day, which met even less success.

Julia Ward Howe was the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. As an activist for women’s rights and peace she was bright light worthy of remembrance this Mother’s Day!

For more peacemakers & their stories

This website is inspired by three books written by Daniel Buttry. Check out his book series on peacemakers, crossing boundaries of religion, ethnicity, and culture.