As you probably know, Sunday, May 10, 2015, is Mother’s Day. Attempts at setting aside an official day to honor mothers go back as early as before the Civil War.

In 1858, a young West Virginia homemaker named Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis established what she called “Mothers Friendship Day” as part of an attempt to improve sanitation and health conditions among her neighbors and, after the War, to foster reconciliation between those of her neighbors who had sided with the Union and those who had sided with the Confederacy.

Her efforts were noticed by social activist Julia Ward Howe, known to most of us as the writer of the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Howe’s attention was also focused primarily on overcoming the horrendous aftermath of war—the Civil War in the United States and the Franco-Prussian War in Europe.

Her effort started with the broadly published “Appeal to Womanhood to Rise Against War.” In 1872, she began advocating for June 2 to be set aside as a “Mother's Day for Peace.” In 1873, women in eighteen cities across the United States held Mother’s Day for Pace gatherings. Howe lobbied for an official declaration of a Mother’s Day holiday. As she turned her attention and energies elsewhere, however, interest in an annual observation of Mother’s Day faded.

Back in West Virginia, Ann Jarvis’ daughter Anna succeeded in introducing what would quickly become the Mother’s Day we know and observe today. Ann Reeves Jarvis died in 1905, and Anna took up the cause of establishing a day to honor mothers. West Virginia was the first state to set aside such a day, but by 1910 most states had some form of officially recognized Mother’s Day.

In 1914, Woodrow Wilson signed the first-ever presidential proclamation establishing the second Sunday in May as “Mother’s Day,” a national holiday to honor mothers.

Ironically, by 1920, Hallmark (seriously) discovered the profitability of printing and selling Mother’s Day greeting cards. Other companies followed suit and as other industries began to capitalize on the sentiment of honoring one’s mother, and Anna Jarvis herself grew to resent the “misinterpretation and exploitation” of her hard-won holiday. She organized boycotts and threatened lawsuits to try to halt the day’s commercialization. She disrupted a candymakers’ convention and was arrested for disturbing the peace while protesting the American War Mothers sale of Mother’s Day carnations as a fundraiser for their organization.

She was also arrested for protesting the 1923 dismissal of a lawsuit she’d filed against the Governor of New York over a Mother’s Day event.

She even tried to have the legislation establishing Mother’s Day rescinded, but she was considerably less successful abolishing her holiday than she’d been establishing it.


In 1912, Anna Jarvis trademarked the phrases “second Sunday in May” and “Mother’s Day” (“Mother’s Day” makes sense, but did you know you could trademark a phrase like “second Sunday in May”?) Notice that the day’s designation is the singular possessive rather than the plural possessive (Mothers’ Day). Jarvis explained the day was intended for each individual family to celebrate its own mother, not for a collective celebration of mothers everywhere; to honor the “best mother you’ve ever known — your mother.”

Woodrow Wilson used the ’s in his 1914 proclamation as have Congress and all of the presidents since then.

Google it. Even Hallmark uses “Mother’s.”

The pages of Literature (notice the capital “L”), however, are not overpopulated with Anna-Jarvis-style best mothers we’ve ever known. Let’s face it, happy childhoods with Carol Brady moms do not provide the stuff of great Epic or Tragedy. “Scout” Finch’s mother is dead. Christopher John Francis Boone’s mom ran off with the next-door neighbor. Hamlet’s mom is a huge part of his problem, and Holden Caulfield’s parents are just sort of abstract concepts hovering in the background.

No, when you really think about it. if a writer bothers to feature a mother as a main character at all, the poor woman is rarely portrayed in all that flattering a manner.

So, on that cheerful note, in honor of all mothers — good, bad, and indifferent; literary and real — here is Prestwick House’s unofficial list of nominees for “Literary Mother-of-the-Year,” the strongest, most memorable, and/or most shocking mother-character in Literature today.

10. Mrs. Bennet

Pride and Prejudice

Mother of Jane (Bingley), Elizabeth (Darcy), Mary, Catherine, and Lydia (Wickham)

All she wants is her daughters to be happy (and married and wealthy). No wonder Darcy fought his admiration for Elizabeth for so long!

9. Amanda Wingfield

The Glass Menagerie

Mother of Tom and Laura

Annoying as she can be, all she really wants is that her kids not to repeat her mistakes and build for themselves decent lives. She could be a Lena Younger if she weren’t so in love with her own past and motivated by blind panic.

8. Mrs. Margaret March

Little Women

Mother of Meg (Margaret), Jo (Josephine), Beth (Elizabeth), and Amy (Amelia)

A little bit Gloria Steinem, a little bit Amy Vanderbilt, “Marmee” was arguably a full century ahead of her time.

7. Daisy Buchanan

The Great Gatsby

Mother of Pammy

Mommy sees daughter once in the entire novel and speaks about her one additional time — when she says she cried to learn she’d had a daughter and hoped the girl would grow up to be a fool. But doesn’t every mother wish the best for her children?

6. Jocasta


Mother of Oedipus, Antigone, Eteocles, Polynices and Ismene

As mathematician and satirist Tom Lehrer sang: There was a king named Oedipus Rex,
Who had a very strange complex,
But he loved his mother!

5. Lady Macbeth


We don’t know the name or gender of this mysterious child, but the Lady tells her husband that she has … given suck, and know[s]
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks [her] … So, unless she had occasion to be a wet nurse, this future Queen of Scotland is a Mom — the ultra-loving kind of tiger-mom who …would, while it was smiling in [her] face,
Have pluck’d [her] nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out … if she’d promised to.

4. Medea


Mother of Mermeros and Pheres

Unlike her Scottish cohort, Medea actually does the deed, killing her and Jason’s sons in the custody battle to end all custody battles. They’re one family you won’t see at brunch on Sunday!

3. Hester Prynne

The Scarlet Letter

Mother of Pearl

We know it’s tough to be a single parent, especially when you’ve got an entire village of Puritans breathing down your neck. Throw into the mix an ex-husband who’s hellbent on driving your lover mad, and a baby-father who’s too spineless to step up, and it’s no wonder the kid grew up a little weird — “child of nature” and all. At least Pearl married well — but why in the world did Hester return to Boston? She should have just stayed in England and spoiled her grandkids.

2. O-lan

The Good Earth

Mother of Wang Lung’s first son, Wang Lung’s second son, Wang Lung’s first daughter, and the twins: Wang Lung’s third son and Wang Lung’s second daughter

She saves her family from starvation and most of her husband’s later success is a direct result of her quick thinking and chutzpah. As a mother, she teaches her sons what it means to respect a woman, and if she errs by binding her baby daughter’s feet, this offense is forgivable since it is motivated solely by her desire to give the girl a happier future with a husband who might truly value her.

And … finally … our nomination for Prestwick House Literary Mother of the Year goes to …

1. Lena Younger

A Raisin in the Sun

Mother of Walter Lee and Beneatha

“Mama” is truly the force that holds her family together. It is her dream to get her family out of the hole of an apartment where the second generation of Younger is growing up. It is her gumption that sets the process of buying a house moving, and it is her wisdom and faith that finally teach her son to stand up and be a man.