Mother's Day is often derided as a Hallmark Holiday — something contrived by greeting card companies, candy makers and florists to give sales a quick boost. But in the U.S., Mother's Day is actually the result of the efforts of Anna Marie Jarvis, a West Virginia woman who wanted a day of remembrance in honor of women like her mother, who had founded Mothers' Day Work Clubs to encourage women to participate in projects aimed at improving public health. It took several years of campaigning, but in 1914 Jarvis finally got President Woodrow Wilson to declare the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.
For this column, we were looking not just for moms that we personally love and admire (a shout-out to Linda and Lena!), but for moms in the public sphere from whom we can all learn, even if we’ve never met.
There are plenty of awesome women out there, and plenty of them have kids. The trick was in coming up with something that makes these women Moms We Love, as distinct from Kick-Ass Women, which they are as well. Here are our picks.
• Ruth Bader Ginsburg There's a lot to admire about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Throughout her legal career, she's been a strong advocate for women's rights as a matter of constitutional law. She was one of only nine women, out of a class of 500, at Harvard Law School in 1954.
And she’s multitasked in a way that few, if any, of her male colleagues on the bench have ever had to do. After her daughter was born in 1955, Ginsburg’s husband Martin was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Martin was in law school as well, so Ginsburg, essentially, went to school for both of them. She attended classes, took notes for both of them, typed her husband’s papers while he dictated — all while taking care of a new baby. And still, she made the Harvard Law Review.
When she was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Ginsburg became the second woman justice and the first Jewish female justice.
• Mary Harris "Mother" Jones Called "the most dangerous woman in America," Mother Jones was a schoolteacher and seamstress who became a noted labor organizer during the early 20th Century. After her husband and four children died of yellow fever, Jones, not content to wallow in her grief, poured her energies into serving as a speaker and organizer for the Mine Workers Union.
The mine workers started calling her "Mother" because of her efforts on their behalf, and she was known for her unusual tactics, including getting women, children and African- Americans involved in strikes as she fought to form unions.
If men had to be embarrassed into taking action, so be it. Said Jones, “I have been in jail more than once and I expect to go again. If you are too cowardly to fight, I will fight.” Later on, she took up the cause of child workers and organized a children's march from the textile mills in Philadelphia to New York City, ending up at President Theodore Roosevelt's home on Long Island. She wrote, simply and honestly, about the injustices she saw, prompting a progressive American magazine to name itself after her.
• Brené Brown The first time I saw Brené Brown’s TED talk, I couldn’t believe it. TED stands for technology, entertainment, design, and for years, most TED speakers had roots in one of these three fields. Even now, they talk about Big Problems that make the newspapers. Malaria. Human trafficking. Climate change.
Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She talked about shame and vulnerability. Not typical TED stuff, yet hers has become one of the most-watched TED videos.
Over six years of research, Brown says, she found that the only difference between people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and people who struggle is that the first group believes they’re worthy of love and belonging. She said that in trying to reject our vulnerability, we try to perfect things that just can’t be perfected — most dangerously, our children. “They’re hard-wired for struggle when they get here,” she says. “When you hold those perfect little babies in your hand, our job is not to say, ‘Look at her, she’s perfect. My job is just to keep her perfect and make sure she makes the tennis team by 5th grade and Yale by 7th grade.’ That’s not our job. Our job is to look and say, ‘You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle. But you are worthy of love and belonging.’ That’s our job.”
• Elizabeth Cady Stanton Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the mother not just of seven children, but in many ways, of the suffrage movement in the United States. Cady Stanton wanted far more than the vote: Unlike her better-known friend and colleague Susan B. Anthony, Cady Stanton also agitated for divorce, property and custody laws that were more favorable to women. At times, her relative radicalism threatened to marginalize her status within the movement she helped start.
While Anthony traveled throughout Europe and the United States, averaging 75 to 100 speeches a year, Cady Stanton wrote most of those speeches, booked many of them, and strategized endlessly. Cady Stanton did travel, but she also married and had seven children. That made it near-impossible for her to commit to the type of schedule Anthony kept up.
In a sense, Anthony was the full-out career woman, unhindered by outside responsibilities, whose energy and focus was essential to the cause. But Cady Stanton was in many senses the one who made it happen. If ever a woman could truly be described as a supermom, our vote would go to her.
• Michelle Obama Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, wife and mother of two, gets our vote because she is using her role as the First Lady of the United States to bring attention to poverty in the U.S., the importance of healthy eating and nutrition to combat childhood obesity, and to draw attention to the struggles of veterans who have recently returned home from service. The President says she’s the one who instilled in him the importance of public service. And yes, her secret service code name is Renaissance.
But somehow it’s still possible to believe that Michelle Obama is one of us. She buys clothes from J. Crew and Target, and wonders if it’s okay to pack Lunchables for her kids. No surprise, then, that she’s more popular than the President — and shows us all that no matter who you’re married to, the woman who has traditionally stood ‘behind’ the great man often deserves the spotlight herself. — KW and CG