In the 21st-century, it has – perhaps – become a cliché to ‘demonstrate’ feminism through certain common tenets like choice of vocations and sexual partners, unconventional dressing styles, and defying ‘categorisation’ through the ‘standards’ of length of hair, complexion,  profile, and ‘degrees of docility’.

However, patriarchal societies have, for long, ‘assessed’ females on the two important issues of fertility and motherhood. Understandably, feminists have particularly focused on them to display how such areas of concern have led to the subservience of women, in reality.

It is not illogical to wonder how depreciatingly such societies would treat those females who are unable to become mothers because of medical complications of their male partners, those who are too physically ‘fragile’ for motherhood, or those who are unwilling to accept ‘motherhood’ as solely defining ‘femininity’ and are willing to become mothers.

Ever since human civilisation has matured, patriarchs and chauvinists have craftily reserved unmitigated respect and salutations only for those women who are mothers through ‘proper’ marriages. In such ‘accepted norms of human conduct’, situations like relatives and in-laws relentlessly pestering married women to ‘become’ mothers are considered acceptable.  

However, if the same women seek to achieve motherhood from men who are not their husbands, or are unwilling to undergo pains of procreation and decide to rear others’ children, or – in cases of lesbians and transgenders – seek to adopt children, they are castigated and labelled ‘fallen’.  

Therefore, motherhood is not the only criterion which makes women venerable. It needs to be ‘proper’, ‘legal’, ‘usual’, and ‘normal’ before women can become the so-called ‘sacred feminine’. In societies obsessed with normativity, any deviation from accepted norms of motherhood continues to be regarded as a deplorable aberration.

Last month on 10th May 2020, despite the Covid-19 lockdown, India celebrated – much like forty other countries but on a more ‘subdued’ level – the ‘Mother’s Day’. Despite travelling restrictions, urban and rural ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’ were treating their mothers to gifts, meals, cards, and hugs. Social media were flooded with love messages for the mothers and nostalgic photographs of bygone days.

It was interesting. Early-20th-century feminists began to celebrate the second Sunday of the month of May as a day to honour mothers and the endurances, pains, and sacrifices they usually undergo as parts of the ‘processes’ of motherhood. By 2020, a sizeable number of people have come to know the history of the celebration of ‘Mother’s Day’.

On 10th May 1908, Anna Maria Jarvis, the advertising-editor for an American life insurance company, held a commemorating service at an Episcopal church in Grafton, Virginia, USA, to honour her social-activist mother, Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis, who had passed away three years ago. This was the modern version (feminist-ically) of Mother’s Day.

Jarvis Senior and the poetess Julia Ward Howe, both of whom had served as soldiers during the American Civil War, had been campaigning for the declaration of a ‘Mothers’ Day’  as a day of peace. Jarvis Junior’s campaign, thereafter, convinced US President Woodrow Wilson to sign, in 1914, the second Sunday of May into a day for thanking, saluting, and honouring mothers all around.

Though it is often – and erroneously – mentioned as ‘Mothers’ Day’, both Jarvis Junior and President Wilson used the term ‘Mother’s Day’ to ensure that each family should honour its own mother.

The day soon became popular internationally, but with some different dates. For example, 97 countries, including U.S.A., Germany, Italy, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh celebrate ‘Mother’s Day’ on the second Sunday of May; 20 countries, including Russia and Vietnam, celebrate 8th March – the ‘International Women’s Day’ – as ‘Mother’s Day’. 13 countries, including France, observe ‘Mother’s Day’ on the last Sunday of May. England celebrates a version of the ‘Mother’s Day’ as the ‘Mothering Sunday’ on the fourth Sunday of March.

It is, however, an unmistakable point that despite celebrating ‘Mother’s Day’, the notion of femininity remains steadily tied to motherhood even in the 21st century. The brouhaha over ‘Mother’s Day’ notwithstanding, some issues have steadily remained unresolved and unanswered.

Firstly, one could straightforwardly ask why femininity should be inextricably tied to the idea of motherhood. Secondly, why should ‘Mother’s Day’ be celebrated on a grand scale, and ‘Father’s Day’, the modern version of which has had been in existence since 1910, be a scaled-down if not ‘drab’ affair? Does not the grandeur of ‘Mother’s Day’ reveal a rather patronising attitude towards mothers, ‘lest they should need assistance’ for celebration?

Third, overflowing presents and confetti during ‘Mother’s Day’ celebrations also indicate the stereotypical (patriarchal) supposition that women like gifts from men. Women are supposed to be ‘emotional’, ‘sentimental’, and ‘soft’ and therefore need to be tended by gifts. Fourth, and most important of all, ‘Mother’s Day’, in the 21st-century, has become highly commercialised. What started as an emotional honouring of motherhood is now a day for brisk business – a day prior to which jewellery manufacturing companies send messages to prospective buyers ‘to show their love to mothers’ by purchasing jewellery.

Even before she died on 24th November 1948, Anna Jarvis Junior had been vociferously criticising the commercialisation of ‘Mother’s Day’. It is a pity for the feminists that Jarvis Junior’s pre-death medical bills would be paid by greeting-cards businessmen!

Subhrasleta Banerjee

Subhrasleta Banerjee is a faculty member at the Department of English, Balurghat Mahila Mahavidyalaya, West Bengal and a researcher at the Department of English, Raiganj University, West Bengal. She is also a trained danseuse.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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