10 Famous Mothers


Flowers are some of the most commonly purchased items in the United States on the second Sunday in May. Indeed, Mother’s Day is like the Black Friday of the floral industry — about 30 percent of American adults bought blooms to celebrate the day according to the Society of American Florists. It’s also the most popular day of the year for folks to dine at restaurants [source: National Restaurant Association]. But oddly enough, the woman responsible for ushering Mother’s Day into existence likely wouldn’t approve of such extravagant spending.

Anna Jarvis organized the first Mother’s Day celebration on May 10, 1908, in Grafton, W. V., to encourage families to honor their mommies dearest with simple, at-home gatherings. When the holiday quickly attracted commercial attention in the following years, Jarvis became incensed. Neither a wife nor mother herself, Jarvis vocally — and unsuccessfully — protested Mother’s Day-related charity events and floral and candy sales. To her, the cultural rituals that became associated with the holiday detracted from her initial vision for humble displays of gratitude toward mothers and grandmothers.

But considering the incredible accomplishments that mothers, including the following 10 famous women, have made inside and outside the home, it’s hard to resist going all out for mom at least one day a year.

10: Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft was a groundbreaking feminist and mother of "Frankenstein" author, Mary Shelly.
Mary Wollstonecraft was a groundbreaking feminist and mother of “Frankenstein” author, Mary Shelly.

Five years before Mary Wollstonecraft published her early feminist treatise “Vindication of the Rights of Women” in 1792, she published her first book, the brief “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: with Reflections on Female Conduct in the more important Duties of Life.” Centering on a theme that would be later echoed in “Vindication…,” Wollstonecraft’s first publication outlined her theories on raising women as reasonable thinkers rather than just wives and mothers in the making [source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]. During an era when marriage largely revolved around wealth and property, and women enjoyed little autonomy and few legal rights, her call for gender equity was a radical one.

Wollstonecraft didn’t have a chance to educate her own two daughters, Fanny and Mary; in 1797, she died in childbirth [source: Brooklyn Museum]. She did, however, pass along her writing talent to Mary who eventually wrote the literary gem and horror classic “Frankenstein.”

9: Marie Curie

Physicist Marie Curie, flanked by her daughters Ève and Irène.
Physicist Marie Curie, flanked by her daughters Ève and Irène.

Ève Curie Labouisse didn’t see her mother much at home while she was growing up [source: Fox]. And that’s not surprising, since Marie Curie was fast on her way toward earning the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, an honor she received when her younger daughter, Ève, was 7 years old. Of course, that wasn’t the only Nobel that the Polish physicist brought home. In 1903, Curie shared the Nobel Prize for Physics with her husband Pierre, with whom she isolated the radioactive isotopes polonium and radium.

After Pierre was struck and killed by a horse-drawn wagon in 1906, Curie devoted more of her time to researching radioactivity than to rearing Ève and her older sister Irène, but her career clearly made an impression on both daughters. Although Ève Curie pursued liberal arts, rather than science, she published a best-selling biography of her mother in 1943. Irène Curie’s adult life largely mirrored her famous mother’s: The elder daughter studied radioactivity alongside Marie Curie and shared a Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband, Frédéric Joliot, in 1935 [source: Nobel Prize]. Both Marie and Irène also died of leukemia, which some suspect was a result of their laboratory interactions with radioactive materials [source: Fox].

8: Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker adopted 12 children from around the world.
Josephine Baker adopted 12 children from around the world.

When Josephine Baker’s popularity began to wane in the 1950s from its red-hot heights 20 years prior, she launched herself into a new venture. In 1954, at an appearance in Copenhagen, the dancer and aging sex symbol explained her desire to adopt “five little boys” from around the world to symbolize race-blind brotherhood [source: Theile]. Ten years later at her home in France, nicknamed “The world capital of brotherhood,” that initial vision had multiplied to 10 boys and two girls from various countries: Japan, Finland, Columbia, France, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Venezuela and Morocco [source: Eburne]. Baker referred to her ethnically eclectic brood as the “Rainbow Tribe.”

While Baker continued to tour and hobnob with famous friends, her husband, Jo Bouillon, oversaw the children’s upbringing at the couple’s sprawling chateau. But despite what sounds like a fairytale setup, the 12 kids slept together in a single attic room, and were regularly put on display for paying tourists [source: Theile]. By 1975, when Josephine Baker died, her husband had long since left her. She had also lost the chateau in 1969 due to the astronomical cost of keeping up her lavish lifestyle and rearing a dozen boys and girls — all of whom scattered around the globe to various boarding schools or to live with Bouillon after their home was taken away. And in a somber testament to her questionable decisions as an adoptive mother, such as putting them on display for tourists, only one of her children has since returned to the “Rainbow Tribe’s” original stomping grounds at the French chateau, where Josephine Baker’s grand maternal experiment quickly soured.

7: Florence Owens Thompson

Florence Owens Thompson, better known as the "Migrant Mother."
Florence Owens Thompson, better known as the “Migrant Mother.”

In 1936, Florence Owens Thompson unwittingly became the face of the Great Depression. That’s when photographer Dorothea Lange snapped the black-and-white picture of a worried-looking Thompson and handed it over to the San Francisco News. Working for the U.S. government’s Resettlement Administration that was formed to assist migrant farm workers, Lange encountered Thompson and her destitute family at a pea picker encampment in Nipomo, Calif. News wires quickly began republishing the iconic portrait, later entitled “Migrant Mother,” as an illustration of the severe poverty that had left Thompson and other Americans on the brink of starvation. In Lange’s field notes, she said that Thompson and her family were “living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed” [source: Library of Congress].

Lange failed to get the woman‘s name, and it wasn’t until 1975 that Florence Owens Thompson publicly identified herself. Four years later, photographer Bill Ganzel tracked down Thompson and her three daughters also shown in “Migrant Mother” and recaptured family that had barely survived the Great Depression, grown up and plump with no trace of Depression poverty and starvation in their aging figures. Although Thompson never reaped any profits from the picture, the federal government delivered 22,000 pounds (9,979 kilograms) of food to the pea picker encampment soon after its publication in 1936 [source: Maksel].

6: Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn's mother was as fiery as she was.
Katharine Hepburn’s mother was as fiery as she was.

Though not as famous as her movie star daughter, Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn left behind a considerable legacy when she died in 1951. Born Katharine Houghton, she followed her own mother’s succinct deathbed advice to pursue an education, and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and history in 1899 and a master’s in chemistry and physics in 1900 — both from Bryn Mawr College — which was an uncommon academic achievement for a woman at the time. Less than a decade later, she became an active suffragette, picketing for women’s right to vote and later championing access to birth control. In 1904 she married Thomas Norval Hepburn, who was finishing medical school [source: Connecticut History].

After forging a friendship with Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, Hepburn helped lobby the U.S. government to loosen its restrictions on birth control clinics and sex education by working with the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control in the 1930s. Back then, birth control and abortion rights were even more controversial than today, but Hepburn was unfazed by the unpopularity of her pro-birth control politics and the accusations of moral depravity critics hurled at her [source: Bennetts]. At home, Hepburn and her husband educated their six children about women’s rights and sexual health, and one of these kids, Katharine Hepburn — the eventual Hollywood icon — worked alongside Planned Parenthood later, in her adult life.

5: Rose Kennedy

Rose Kennedy, political matriarch.
Rose Kennedy, political matriarch.

Rose Kennedy’s long life was dominated by politics from start to finish. The matriarch of America’s most famous political dynasty with three sons who rose to prominence in the U.S. government, she grew up while her father, John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, served as a congressman and, later, mayor of Boston in the early 1900s. When she raised her own large family of nine children, Rose Kennedy approached her mothering duties almost like a sports team manager, keeping itemized records of everything from kids’ dental visits down to their shoe sizes [source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum]. On a 1936 calendar, Kennedy jotted down, “I looked upon child rearing as a profession” [source: Cullen]. In recognition of her devout Catholic faith and maternal attentiveness, the Vatican endowed her with the title “papal countess” in 1951 [source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum].

Making it to 104 years of age, Kennedy outlived four of her nine children, all of whom died in tragic circumstances. Her oldest son, Joseph, was killed in action in World War II in 1944, and her daughter Kathleen died in a plane crash four years later. John and Robert were both assassinated in 1963 and 1968, respectively.

4: Ma Barker

Ma Barker died with a tommy gun in her hand.
Ma Barker died with a tommy gun in her hand.

Arizona Donnie Clark was born in 1872 in Springfield, Mo., but when she died in an FBI shootout in 1935, she went down as “Ma” Barker. Ma and her husband, George Barker, had four sons — Herman, Lloyd, Fred and Arthur — who started out as delinquent boys and then began a criminal gang, traveling around the Midwest committing payroll, post office and bank robberies during the 1920s and 1930s [source: Jensen]. After years of her sons doing jail time and dodging arrests, the FBI finally caught up with Ma and Fred in 1935 hiding out in Florida, and the pair went down with guns blazing. The FBI had previously named Ma Barker a “female public enemy” for her alleged involvement in helping plot her sons’ criminal escapades and dodging law enforcement officials [source: Jensen].

Due to the potential controversy of killing 63-year-old woman, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover helped craft the public image of Ma Barker as the mastermind behind her sons’ misdeeds [source: American Experience]. Subsequent accounts from affiliated gang members later discredited that portrayal, asserting that the boys sent Ma to the movies during their law-breaking schemes. Nevertheless, Barker remains memorialized as the crime-loving mama who died with a tommy gun in her left hand [source: Jensen].

3: Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King sought to continue her husband's work of social change after his assassination.
Coretta Scott King sought to continue her husband’s work of social change after his assassination.

When civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968, the tragedy left Coretta Scott King with two overwhelming burdens. Upon her husband’s death, the widow King immediately became a single mother of four children — Yolanda, Martin, Dexter and Bernice — and the torchbearer of her late spouse’s nationwide movement for racial equality.

Compared at times to Jackie Kennedy, who was similarly widowed in 1963, King balanced a public life of travel and speaking engagements while maintaining a home life for her children. Meanwhile, she successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to establish a federal holiday commemorating her husband’s life and work, which President Ronald Reagan signed into existence in 1983 [source: Applebome]. And back in Atlanta, she founded The King Center to promote the type of non-violent social change famously espoused by Martin Luther King Jr. Since Coretta Scott King’s death in 2006, her children have squabbled over control of their family’s legacy and The King Center, which has attracted criticism. Still, every third Monday in January is reserved for MLK Day, a testament to this wife and mother’s tireless dedication to human rights and her husband’s lasting imprint on history.

2: Indira Gandhi

Late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her younger son and chief political adviser, Sanjay.
Late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her younger son and chief political adviser, Sanjay.

Even before she became prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi seemed to value her burgeoning political career — facilitated by her then-prime minister father, Jawaharlal Nehru — over preserving her marriage. In March 1942, the 24-year-old got hitched to Feroze Gandhi and had two sons with him, Rajiv and Sanjay, in the following four years. But the union deteriorated as she devoted a majority of her time to assisting her widower father, who had become India’s first prime minister after the nation declared its independence from Great Britain in 1947. But even though Gandhi didn’t relish the role of wife, she merged her political and maternal roles, grooming her younger son, Sanjay, as her successor and chief political adviser during her three successive terms in office from 1966 to 1977. Soon after she was elected to a fourth term, however, Sanjay died in a 1980 plane crash [source: Encyclopædia Britannica].

Partly due to such nepotism, Gandhi left behind a muddied legacy when she was assassinated in 1984. Also, in the mid-70s, she postponed elections, imprisoned opponents and restricted civil liberties to thwart the Indian high court from suspending her political participation as punishment for election fraud [source: Encyclopædia Britannica]. The night before she was shot and killed, Gandhi prophetically told a crowd “If I die today, every drop of my blood will invigorate the nation” [source: BBC]. Her eldest son, Rajiv Gandhi, was then overwhelmingly voted into office, as his mother would’ve wished.

1: J.K. Rowling

Since penning the first "Harry Potter" novel as a single mother, J.K. Rowling remarried and has had two more children.
Since penning the first “Harry Potter” novel as a single mother, J.K. Rowling remarried and has had two more children.

British author J.K. Rowling’s one major regret regarding her wildly popular “Harry Potter” series: not telling her mother about the fantastical books that she began writing in 1990 [source: Celizic]. Rowling’s mother died of multiple sclerosis before “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was published in 1997, and the loss compelled Rowling to continue crafting the whimsical world of Hogwarts and wizardry while battling clinical depression and facing dire financial straits as a single mother. Her persistence clearly paid off — big time. Finally completing the seventh and final volume, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” in 2007, Rowling became the “first female billionaire novelist,” as reported by Forbes magazine in 2011 [source: Forbes].

In 2001, Rowling remarried and later gave birth to two more children, but she didn’t forget her bleak period in the early 1990s as a struggling single mom. In a 2010 column for the Times of London entitled “Single Mother’s Manifesto,” Rowling praised Britain’s child welfare system that served as a “safety net” until Harry Potter waved his magic wand of fortune on her and her daughter Jessica’s lives.



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