Motherhood: From Mystery to Majesty

“We are all called to be heroes for our children, parents of the world. We have to promise to find our children, over and over again. We have to find them when they are hungry, when they are poor, when they are threatened by gun violence, when they are separated from their parents at the border, when they are forced into one of two genders, when they are told they aren’t worthy…..

For all of us who nurture, and we all nurture, may we bring the fullness of our bodies, minds and spirits into the service of the eternal renewal of life.”

This service was offered to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse on Sunday, May 12th, 2019.

Wisdom Story. “I Promise I’ll Find You” by Heather Patricia Ward. Illustrated by Sheila McGraw.  (To watch a reading of the book, click here:

Reading: Mother To Child – A Poem by Unitarian Suffragette and Maternal Feminist Charlotte Perkins Stetson Gilman (1911)


 Today is Mother’s Day. It’s the day when you don’t have a prayer of getting a table for brunch without a reservation. The price of flowers has skyrocketed, and will drop tomorrow morning.   Pastel colored cards with flowers, birds, and warm fuzzy pictures fill a whole aisle at Walgreens.

For some of us it’s a great day. Maybe your kids made you breakfast, or they tried to make breakfast and you pretended it was fantastic! Maybe your grown kids will call today. Or you got one of those cards and it was just right. Maybe your kid made an art project for you, and it’s hanging on your fridge.

For some of us, it’s a mixed day. If you’re grieving a parent, this day can magnify the grief. If you have lost a child, had an abortion, or offered your child for adoption, if you are estranged from your children, this day can be tender or raw.

If you couldn’t be a mother, or chose not to be a mother, or became a mother under complicated circumstances, weren’t the mother you wanted to be, if your mother wasn’t the kind of mother who could promise to find you, Mother’s Day can stir things up.

I am very fortunate to have a mother that I would celebrate 365 days of the year if I could. She’s not the perfect mother, but she is a good enough mother in most ways and a fantastic mother in some really important ways. But the way Mother’s Day is messaged hasn’t worked for either of us because she wasn’t that kind of mother, this idealized image of motherhood that has been packaged and put on a pedestal and we’re all supposed to fall in line with it or we’re not good enough.

And you know whose fault that is?   Do you know who started Mother’s Day? The Unitarians! It’s our fault! We created Mother’s Day, or to be more specific, a white Unitarian woman by the name of Julia Ward Howe established Mother’s Day as a political statement and we went for it! Julia Ward Howe, a 1st wave maternal feminist, the woman who wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic after she visited the front during the Civil War, she proclaimed Mother’s Day in 1870. Her vision of Mother’s Day had nothing to do with flowers, cards, breakfast in bed or brunch! It was a response to a life where women had no right to vote, no right to own property, no right to a bank account, no legal right to their children, no right to bodily autonomy.

Mother’s Day was an attempt to take motherhood out of the shadows of the home and raise up mothers as heroes who deserved to be publicly revered, treasured, respected. Many of the idealized forms of motherhood that feel forced today were created out of this intense need among growing numbers of women to develop public esteem for mothers so as to advance a whole host of political agendas. The most prominent were the end of slavery, an end to war, ending poverty, legalizing access to birth control, women’s right to vote, and prohibition, which was the movement to make the production and sale of alcohol illegal.

All of this was part of what today we call 1st wave feminism, or maternal feminism. It was a very particular kind of feminism that started before the Civil War and was pretty much done by 1929. It strongly influenced Unitarianism and Universalism because women in both denominations were often its leaders and its most ardent followers.

Maternal Feminism had an essentialist understanding of womanhood. To be a woman was to be a mother. That was the primary role intended for women.  Before our 21st century feminist eyes roll into our heads at the suggestion, we have to understand what it was like for women before there was access to birth control. Being a mother was pretty much guaranteed to happen to you unless by some circumstance you didn’t marry or escaped being sexually violated.

Raising kids was your present and your future and most women had children all the way through their fertile years. You’d have many miscarriages and stillbirths, you probably had some of your children die before the age of four, and if you didn’t die during labor or from complications from labor, you might have 3-4 kids who made it to 18. And because you probably wore your body out having all those kids and raising them, you might not live to see your grandkids. So raising kids was your life. Maternal feminism came out of this reality.

What it said, basically, is that the experience of bearing a child, nursing a child, and raising a child changed you. When your whole being is in the service of creating and nurturing life, there grows in you this mystical oneness with life, this unconditional love that is stronger than anything, and you will be among the most committed to peace, community, justice, equality, and social well being.

So women had this transforming experience but no political power to protect the ones they gave life to.

Here are some other realities they dealt with.

It is estimated that 75% – 80% of men in the 19th century were alcoholics. To be a man was to hold your drink, and to be able to hold a lot of it. Most women and children lived in homes deeply affected by men who drank. Domestic violence was rampant and accepted. It was what men did and what women endured.

Then there was the Civil War, which most Northern women supported because they were the cornerstones of the Abolitionist movement. Women pushed abolitionism before men did. Northern men dragged their heels as long as they could, including Unitarian men, because the North depended on slavery for cheap raw materials that were processed in northern factories. But the women kept pushing until public opinion started to shift and then the men found themselves having to catch up. Northern women, like Julia Ward Howe, were on board with the war, at the beginning, but as the war dragged on, and hundreds of thousands of people died, some women started wondering if men were the cause of war, if men were the cause of slavery, if men were the cause of most of the suffering in the world.

Maternal feminism harnessed all this discontent, especially among white middle class women who were searching for ways to increase the power women had to protect themselves and to raise their children. Maternal feminism moved motherhood from this private thing that happened in the family home and made it something mystic, majestic, sacred, essential.

The writer of our centering reading this morning is a case in point. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in 1860 and she was a maternal feminist utopianist. She had a very abusive husband and she escaped that marriage after much suffering but it cost her a relationship with her only child.  Like most Unitarians, she believed that human kind had the ability to rise into a perfection intended for them by God. Unfortunately, only men had been allowed to strive for this perfection, with women confined to the home, thus depriving the human race of its full potential. She advocated for women’s economic independence, for egalitarian marriages, and for the professionalization of childrearing so that everyone shared the responsibility. In 1915 she published a feminist utopian novel, Herland, in which women have separated from men to create a perfect society. There is no poverty, no suffering, no squashed dreams, no violence. When two men stumble upon this utopia, they are allowed to stay only if they agree to subject themselves to the teachings of women so that they can unlearn patriarchy and learn how to live ethically.

Lots of maternal feminists dreamed up these utopias, and even tried to establish a few in real life, but a most of them just wanted to make life better in the here and now. Prohibition was part of it. They believed that men would be better human beings if they did not have access to alcohol. Prohibitionist women were ridiculed as judgmental busbody uppity women, but for them, prohibition was an anti-poverty anti-domestic violence program.

Maternal feminists also pushed for birth control. Their goal was to lessen the economic burden of large families and give women the ability to space their children so their bodies weren’t ravaged by continuous pregnancy and childbirth.   They also supported the unionization of women’s work, and hence, songs like Bread and Roses were born.

Their main tool for all of this was the vote.   They wanted the political power to choose leaders who would best protect women and children. When their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons argued that women didn’t have the intellectual capacity to vote, maternal feminists ramped up the “mother as sacred superhero” trope: the all knowing Mother, infinitely loving, mystically intuiting her children’s every longing, feeling their suffering as if their own, tirelessly working from morning to night to grow these beautiful human beings. This is when maternal feminists developed the Mothers of the World idea. Mothers loved all the children of the world and held them in their loving reliable arms.

There’s a few things about maternal feminism that aren’t so pretty:

Maternal feminists were white and like all whites in that time, believed in white superiority. Like many white abolitionists, they saw Black people as childlike and themselves as mothers protecting them. Most maternal feminists were from well to do families and saw working class women as inferior. Some maternal feminists were part of the eugenics movement, which supported the forced sterilization of women deemed unsuited to motherhood, and often targeted poor white women, Black women, and Indigenous women. Women who didn’t have children were pretty much left out of their superwoman thinking. Women who adopted had a partial experience of the power of motherhood, but not the complete one. That took pregnancy and birth.

Maternal feminists were also very naïve in believing that criminalizing alcohol and alcohol consumption would end it. We know now that it was a dismal failure and bolstered organized crime in a way that still impacts us today.

And yet for their time, these flawed women, both products of their time and trying to push beyond it, were expanding what was possible. Some of their accomplishments include Planned Parenthood, child labor laws, public education, public libraries, unions for women, addiction programs, access to contraception, and women’s right to vote.

So here we are today, it’s Mother’s Day, the day that Julia Ward Howe proclaimed in 1870, this complicated commercialized day where you need a reservation for brunch, where pastel colored cards fill an entire aisle at Walgreens, the price of flowers skyrockets, and art projects cover the fridges of mothers everywhere.

We’ve had two more feminist waves since Julia’s proclamation. Second wave feminism emerged in the 1960s predominantly among white babyboomer women who fought for the right not to be mothers, where mothering is not destiny but choice. Then came 3rd wave feminism from among Gen X, Y and millennials. We learned the hard way that you can’t have it all. This 3rd wave is more multiracial, actively engaged in the intersectionality of oppressions and more effectively centers the lived realities of women of color and transgender women.

Then there’s the issue of what is gender. For 1st wave feminists this wasn’t a question. Second wave feminists stayed within the gender binary but expanded what was possible within it. Third wave feminists are asking what makes a woman, and how many ways of living gender are outside that male/female binary which is a social construct and an illusion. Your biology does not determine your gender or your life’s choices. Whether we have children or not, every one of us has an inner parent, an inner nurturer. There are many ways to manifest that in our very complicated world. We need to be humble and affirming of the rainbow of the human experience.

If there is one thing we could carry with us from those maternal feminists, it’s that fierce opposition to equality and empowerment is to be expected and it will be sustained. Those who identify as women are still seen as dangerous when we embrace our power. Our bodily autonomy and right to question the roles that have been expected of us is still under threat. There is still judgment of women who are not mothers and often subtle judgments about women who are mothers by adoption. And then as now, until those who identify as a gender other than male are truly free, those who identify as male are also imprisoned in hurtful expectations of what it means to be a man.

Then and now, those who advocate for children are still diminished, ridiculed, ignored and underpayed. So we are all called to be heroes for our children, parents of the world. We have to promise to find our children, over and over again. We have to find them when they are hungry, when they are poor, when they are threatened by gun violence, when they are separated from their parents at the border, when they are forced into one of two genders, when they are told they aren’t worthy.

For all of you who identify as mothers, Happy Mother’s Day! I hope it’s a wonderful day for you.

For all of us who nurture, and we all nurture, may we bring the fullness of our bodies, minds and spirits into the service of the eternal renewal of life.

Amen and blessed be.

This sermon is the intellectual property of Rev. Krista Taves.   You are welcome to quote or use any portion of this sermon provided credit is given.  


About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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