When Mother’s Day Is ‘Empowering’

The century-old holiday is the latest thing to take on the rhetoric of commercialized feminism.


Mother’s Day was created when, in 1908, Anna Jarvis invented the holiday as a gesture to honor her own mother. Her idea caught on quickly: By 1914, in large part because of a campaign Jarvis waged to have her celebration of motherhood more widely recognized, Congress gave the day status as an official national holiday. Companies, as they do, did their part to further institutionalize Mother’s Day, marketing flowers and candies and greeting cards as the proper ways to celebrate Mom.

Soon, Jarvis came to regret the holiday she had put on the American calendar. In 1920, she wrote a press release declaring florists and greeting card manufacturers to be “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers, and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations.” And, as Nicole Russell wrote in The Atlantic in 2013, she “spent the rest of her life trying to abolish the holiday she founded.” This time, of course, Jarvis’s powers of persuasion failed her. Mother’s Day would remain—not just a Hallmark holiday, but a Teleflora one.

I thought of Jarvis when I saw, on Amazon, the section of that massive marketplace that is currently devoted to Mother’s Day. The section, backgrounded in pastel pink and decorated at the edges with origami roses rendered in muted corals, offers in one way pretty much the stuff you’d expect a Mother’s Day-devoted page to put on display: gadgets organized under headings like Food & Kitchen, Style, Spa Days, Creative Hobbies. Commercial goods that range from the practical to the whimsical and that are, all in all, pretty much the stuff of Jarvisian nightmare.

Amazon’s Mother’s Day offerings, however, contain a newer addition to the traditional gift selections: a section claiming to offer Empowering Keepsakes—“for the mom,” the section explains, “who loves feeling inspired.” Empowering Keepsakes links to items on offer at Amazon’s Girl Power and Sorry Not Sorry boutiques; through them, you can order Mom a hardcover copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, or a silver necklace with “fearless” etched in a pendant, or a Rosie the Riveter cuff bracelet, or a plastic iPhone cover scrawled with the intriguingly punctuated phrase “im not Bossy im The Boss,” or a mug printed with an all-caps reminder to “GET IT GIRL.” You can order your mother, basically, some cheerfully commercialized feminism.

It’s an old story that feminism itself has been co-opted by consumerism (you can buy that book on Amazon, too, for $16.06 plus shipping); here, though, through Amazon’s massive online marketplace, is an everyday reminder of that co-optation, rendered in mugs and mousepads and slim-fit t-shirts with “BELIEVE IN YOURSELF” silkscreened onto their surfaces. Here is Empowerment, transformed into a Keepsake. “Empowerment” got its start, as a political ethos, in the social work of the American 1970s—a term meant to encourage marginalized communities to fight against paternalism, in the ways they saw fit for themselves; in the early 1980s, Jia Tolentino notes in The New York Times, the psychologist Julian Rappaport broadened it “into a political theory of power that viewed personal competency as fundamentally limitless”—one that “placed faith in the individual and laid at her feet a corresponding amount of responsibility too.”

Compare that to Empowering Keepsakes, which is not at all about moral libertarianism and only in the most superficial sense about power, personal or otherwise, at all. Amazon is selling its Empowering Keepsakes against a political backdrop of wage disparities, rampant misogyny, and structural forces that make it exceedingly difficult for all women, mothers or not, to GET IT GIRL.

The rhetoric of commercialized empowerment is also striking in the context of Mother’s Day itself, which is not merely a celebration of motherhood, but which is also coded as a celebration of extremely traditional femininity. There are the pinks and the petunias, yes, but there are also the (slightly) subtler genderings: the fact, say, that Food Network’s advice on throwing the perfect Mother’s Day brunch involves recipes for light frittatas and sweet baked goods, while its Father’s Day offerings will inevitably involve tips for grilling cuts of manly meat. As Jill Filipovic points out in her book The H-Spot, the association of “light” food with women, and of “substantial” food with men, has a long history—with, among other things, smaller-is-better assumptions about women’s bodies, and notions that women, as the weaker sex, should save the meat for the strong men and growing kids while they make do with what’s left over.

There’s nothing wrong with an omelette, of course. But taken together, the commercialized offerings of Mother’s Day suggest how conflicted American culture remains when it comes to feminism, and motherhood, and womanhood itself. Mother’s Day, as observed in 2017, remains, technically, what it was back in 1914: a celebration of motherhood, its joys, its sacrifices. In practice, however, the holiday functions much as Valentine’s Day does, as a commercialized endorsement of traditional femininity. All those flowers. All that chocolate. All that Food & Kitchen. All that pink.

And: All that money. The Baltimore Sun, examining data from the National Retail Federation, reports that Mother’s Day now ranks third out of all yearly holidays when it comes to consumer spending—just below the Christmas/Hanukkah celebrations and the fall back-to-school season. (And just above Valentine’s Day.) This year should be a record-breaking one for Mother’s Day spending: American shoppers are expected to spend around $186 on average on the mothers in their lives, for a total of nearly $24 billion nationally. Some of those billions will be devoted to gifts that profess to celebrate women’s “empowerment”—all in a political and economic environment that finds women’s actual power to be under threat. Anna Jarvis, on some level, realized what she’d started; she simply realized it too late.