Our series “Celebrating Motherhood” shares inspiring stories, helpful advice, and insightful recommendations for choosing the perfect gifts to express your love for moms of all types.
Moms are the unsung heroes of the world. They rise to accept a responsibility that takes hard work and dedication, often sailing under the radar. Chances are that you know plenty of amazing moms (and may even be one yourself) — but it’s important that we also tip our collective hat to mothers of the past. In honor of Mother’s Day, we’re focusing on three unforgettable moms who made their mark on the world and symbolize the sacrifices moms so selflessly continue to make for us all.
Georgina Đuka Tesla
You’ve probably heard of the great inventor Nikola Tesla. He was on one side of a heated “alternating current war” with Thomas Edison in the 1880s over the technology and future of electricity. His legacy lives on, and today his name is blazoned on modern-day Tesla electric cars. But you probably don’t know that his mother, Georgina, was an inventor too.
Georgina was the eldest of seven siblings, and though she was extremely intelligent, she never attended school. Nikola, who was close with his mother, called her a first-class inventor. Obviously, as a woman in the 1800s, her opportunities were limited, and Nikola believed she could have achieved more in different circumstances.
The family lived in a rural area in Serbia, and Georgina created devices to help the household run more smoothly — such as an egg beater. She was also an excellent weaver and could tie three knots on an eyelash even after reaching her 60s. Although Georgina couldn’t read, she memorized many Serbian folk poems.
Nikola was by his mother’s side when she died on April 4, 1892, at the age of 71. He had been in Europe giving university lectures when he received a telegram saying she was sick, and he abandoned the tour to be with his mother. Her last words were, “You’ve made it, Nidža. You are here, my pride.”
We all know Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) as an abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and evangelist, but she deserves to be honored as a mother (and daughter to an amazing mom), too. In her autobiography, Sojourner speaks fondly of her own mother, “Mau-Mau Bett,” who had 12 children.
Even as Mau-Mau watched her children be sold into slavery and separated from her, she said, “[Those] are the same stars, and that is the same moon, that look down upon your brothers and sisters and which they see as they look up to them, though they are ever so far away from us and each other.”
Sojourner showed a deep dedication to her own children, too. When she escaped to freedom with her infant daughter in 1862, she had to leave four children behind. Sojourner later discovered that one of her children, Peter, had been illegally sold into slavery.
She confronted the enslavers, but they didn’t think she could afford to rescue Peter. As Sojourner says in her autobiography, though, “I have no money, but God has enough, or what’s better! And, I’ll have my child again!”
With the help of an abolitionist family, she successfully sued the enslavers who took her 5-year-old son. Sojourner was the first Black woman to sue a white man and win.
In 1901, Edith Roosevelt, mom to six children and wife to Theodore Roosevelt, became First Lady, and one of the largest First Families moved into the White House. Of course, the expectations for both motherhood and the role of First Lady were different back then — today a mother in the White House has to juggle the demands and duties of both occupations, all while under media scrutiny.
Even so, Edith made sure she protected the children from publicity, even as her husband attempted to get more press attention. She wanted to have more children, and she had at least one miscarriage as First Lady. “Because of her era, she was a wife first and foremost,” says historian Stacy A. Cordery. “Because of her class, she was not expected to do things that a nursemaid, cook, governess, or tutor would do for or with the children — like bathe, feed, and school them.”
What was unique about Edith and Theodore, however, was their involvement in their children’s lives at the time, particularly in light of Theodore’s duties as president. “In part we see the Roosevelts as such ‘good’ parents because they did more with their children than most elite, white parents of the era, and in that way come closer to our modern definition of ‘good’ parents,” Stacy says.
One of the family’s most prominent pursuits was reading. “She and TR both read to the children because [Edith] was a passionate reader, and because TR was as well — they communicated that love to their children,” Stacy says.
Edith did not see herself as a role model for mothers as First Lady, though. “Edith intentionally destroyed much of her correspondence. She knew that TR’s life and world were going to go down in history, and she did not want history prying into her own writing,” says Sharon Kilzer, project manager of Dickinson State University’s Theodore Roosevelt Center.
That did not stop Theodore from praising his wife in a letter to a friend: “I do not think my eyes are blinded by affection when I say that she has combined to a degree I have never seen in any other woman the power of being the best of wives and mothers, the wisest manager of the household, and at the same time being the ideal great lady and mistress of the White House.”