Anna Jarvis is widely credited as the founder of Mother’s Day. When her mother died in 1905, Jarvis promised to honor her by creating a holiday to celebrate all moms. Three years later, on May 10, 1908, the first Mother’s Day was publicly observed by Jarvis, and it was signed into law as a national holiday by Woodrow Wilson in 1914.
But it wouldn’t be a true Mother’s Day if there wasn’t a little passive-aggressive arguing over who should get credit for what.
To that end, there are at least two others who claimed to have had the idea before Jarvis. As historian Katharine Antolini pointed out in her book Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day, anti-war activist Julia Ward Howe promoted a “Mothers’ Peace Day” as early as 1872 in an effort to spread peace after the Civil War as well as the Franco-Prussian War. Meanwhile, Notre Dame football coach Frank Hering also professed to be the rightful founder of Mother’s Day.
On February 8, 1904, Hering gave a speech in which he urged a gathering of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, where he was the president, to set aside a day to honor moms once a year. As the story goes, Hering was inspired by the letters his students wrote home to their mothers. “Practically every boy has as his sweetheart his mother — and that the surest way to appeal to him for his best efforts in building his character and his grades — those things greatly to be desired — was to remind him of the deep happiness his mother receives,” Hering said, per Notre Dame’s news archives, where Hering is cited as the “Father of Mother’s Day.” (Notre Dame Magazine similarly labeled him as “the man credited with having the idea for Mother’s Day.”)
For their part, the Fraternal Order of Eagles also credits Hering and the organization itself with coming up with the initial idea and “continues to celebrate and take pride in the creation of Mother’s Day.”
Jarvis had no children of her own and viewed the holiday as her life’s work, so she understandably didn’t take too kindly to Hering’s claims. In an undated statement from the 1920s titled “Kidnapping Mother’s Day: Will You Be an Accomplice?” Jarvis pleaded, “Do me the justice of refraining from furthering the selfish interests of this claimant who is making a desperate effort to snatch from me the rightful title of originator and founder of Mother’s Day, established by me after decades of untold labor, time and expense.”
To Antolini, it was pretty clear that Jarvis took Mother’s Day way too seriously. “Everything she signed was Anna Jarvis, Founder of Mother’s Day. It was who she was,” Antolini told National Geographic in 2017. And as Mother’s Day became more popular, Jarvis became increasingly obsessed with defending the holiday and fighting against the commercialization of it. In 1923, she “crashed” a confectioners convention, and she later protested the American War Mothers for selling carnations for the war effort, where she was eventually arrested for disturbing the peace. At one point, Jarvis even criticized First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise money for charity. By 1944, she had 33 Mother’s Day-related lawsuits going simultaneously, Newsweek reports.
Blind, deaf and completely out of money, Jarvis eventually died in a sanatorium in Philadelphia in 1948 at the age of 84. By Antolini’s accounts, Jarvis spent her final months going door-to-door, asking for signatures to have Mother’s Day rescinded as a holiday. In the end, Jarvis “never profited from the day and she could easily have done so. I admire her for that,” Antolini told the BBC.
As admirable as that might have been, it’s sad that no one could convince Jarvis that it was entirely possible for two people to have the same idea at once, especially if that idea was as general as “moms are great, we should celebrate them.”
It’s especially unfortunate because Jarvis herself seems like she could have benefitted from a speech from a coach like Hering about knowing when to let something go.