A Covid-19 Mother’s Day
Just as we are called on to unite against a deadly pandemic, there are those who would undermine progress that has taken over a century to achieve.
Chances are you’ve never really wondered how Mother’s Day came to be. The cynics among us might imagine a room full of crafty marketing men, cooking up a holiday tailor-made for commerce: flowers, chocolates, jewelry, and saccharine-sweet greeting cards. While it’s easy to imagine this genesis, in reality there was a real woman who inspired our national day of recognition for mothers, and her name was Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis.
Her life story is indeed a motivational tale that should inspire us all, as Ann Jarvis was both a loving mother and one of the nation’s first public health activists. It’s also especially relevant this Mother’s Day, as our nation fights to contain the Covid-19 virus.
The Jarvis family, like many families during the mid-1800's, experienced unimaginable tragedy. Ann Jarvis bore thirteen children but only four survived to adulthood. The other nine died of diseases such as measles, typhoid fever and diphtheria, epidemics that were common in the Appalachian communities where the Jarvis family resided. These losses inspired her to take action to help her community combat childhood diseases and unsanitary conditions.
Jarvis organized Mother’s Day Work Clubs to improve health and sanitation. She and other women joined the growing public health movement and sought to provide assistance and education to families, with the goal of reducing disease rates and infant mortality. Jarvis’s brother James Reeves, a physician who had combated the typhoid fever epidemics in northwestern Virginia, advised this grassroots public health effort.
During the Civil War years the Mothers’ Day Work Clubs declared neutrality and provided aid to both Confederate and Union soldiers. Under Jarvis’s guidance the clubs fed, clothed, and — when typhoid fever and measles broke out — nursed soldiers from both sides.
Jarvis advocated for literacy and public health throughout her life. Her daughter, Anna, was so inspired by her mother’s tireless efforts that she embarked on a mission to make Mother’s Day an officially recognized holiday. She succeeded when, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a congressional resolution making the second Sunday in May the national Mother’s Day.
As the coronavirus spreads like wildfire throughout the nation, Ann Jarvis’s story should come as an inspiration. It’s incumbent on all of us to remember the efforts of Jarvis, and others like her, who took on the public health challenges of the day and made a real difference in their communities.
Jarvis’s story also underscores how far we have come in eradicating childhood disease and improving public health. But just as our nation faces a new challenge, there are forces at play that would undermine progress that has taken over a century to achieve.
The Covid-19 pandemic is shining a bright light on a growing cohort of Americans who are science deniers, including many elected officials and our current president. These citizens ignore public health experts, doctors and scientists. They dismiss the warnings of experts and elected officials. In some cases they directly disobey orders to social distance, wear masks and comply with other mandated measures that slow the spread of this deadly virus. Even worse, some of them are also “anti-vaxxers” who have chosen not to vaccinate their children against the same diseases that killed the Jarvis children and so many others just a century ago. Many pledge to refuse the Covid-19 vaccine when it becomes available.
This misdirected movement is a direct and deadly threat to our nation’s public health.
Those using the Covid-19 global pandemic to promote science denial and a political agenda have forgotten the suffering of our ancestors and the efforts of public health pioneers like Ann Jarvis. Some of them are even calling for another civil war and extolling violence in communities already ravaged by fear and disease. These individuals believe our differences are more important than the ties that bind us. However, if we have learned nothing else in the battle against Covid-19, the pandemic has illustrated beyond a doubt that we are all interconnected in ways that cannot be denied.
Mother’s Day should remind us of the tireless efforts of our fore-mothers to save their fellow citizens from unspeakably painful deaths or disability due to communicable diseases like polio, diphtheria, or typhoid fever. It should inspire us to double down on our efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19, including standing up to those who deny science in the name of political gain.
So this Mother’s Day, honor Ann Jarvis’s memory — and moms and families everywhere — by taking this pandemic seriously. Stay home. Stay safe. Stay healthy. And speak up for science.
A special word of gratitude to Dr. Eve Switzer for her fearless advocacy on behalf of our children. She and other doctors, nurses, and public health professionals deserve our undying support.
Camille Gage is a Minneapolis-based artist and writer.