Literary Lady, Complicated Proto-Feminist

sarah josepha hale
Detail of portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale by James Reid Lambdin, c. 1831. (Public domain/Wikimedia)

Writer and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale succeeded in 19th-century America, against the odds, as Melanie Kirkpatrick lays out in her new biography.

Lady Editor: Sarah Josepha Hale and the Making of the Modern American Woman, by Melanie Kirkpatrick (Encounter Books, 323 pp., $29.99)

Sarah Josepha Hale is known — to the extent that she is remembered at all — as the author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and for her role in lobbying to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. But in her own day she was a widely read writer, tastemaker, and celebrity — nearly everyone in antebellum America felt her influence through her editorship of the country’s foremost periodical for women, Godey’s Lady’s Book.

In her new biography, Lady Editor, Melanie Kirkpatrick brings Hale’s remarkable story vividly to life and makes the case that she deserves to be widely known and appreciated in our day, too.

One reason she has not been is that there is too much in her life and thought that offends modern sensibilities. She makes for a complicated proto-feminist.

Though a passionate and successful advocate of women’s causes, she opposed women’s suffrage; she believed that women and men should largely operate in separate spheres, that women were morally superior to men and should not sully themselves with the grubby business of politics; throughout the Civil War, she remained publicly silent on the subject of slavery, though she thought it an evil; she was devoutly religious and believed that literature should teach moral lessons; she thought that the domestic work of women and their role as mothers ought to be elevated and accorded dignity.

But, as Kirkpatrick shows, she also fashioned a public role for herself as a professional writer and editor at a time when those positions hardly existed for women. Over a long life, she doggedly worked to promote women’s education, their admittance to professional occupations, and their leading role in philanthropy. She advanced the budding literary reputations of dozens of women (and men), including Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frances Hodgson Burnett. She was an ardent patriot, who thought it her mission to help forge a distinctly American culture and literature.

In Kirkpatrick, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former Wall Street Journal editor, Hale is fortunate to have a sympathetic and intelligent biographer. Over a few hundred brisk and engaging pages, Kirkpatrick traces the unlikely arc of Hale’s life with a journalist’s eye for the telling detail and a clear, direct style.

Born a daughter of the Revolution on a farm in New Hampshire in 1788, educated at home, and suddenly widowed as a young woman while pregnant with her fifth child, Hale made a literary career for herself seemingly from scratch. The need to provide for her fatherless young family (and her loathing for the alternative means of support, needlework) spurred her to try her hand seriously at writing for publication, at first under demure pen names and then under her own.

The relative success of her first novel, Northwood: A Tale of New England (1827), won her enough recognition that she got her big break: The publisher of a new magazine for women, Ladies’ Magazine, asked her if she would come to Boston to edit it. It was a wrenching move that involved breaking up her home and shipping all her children but her youngest off to various relatives. Her neighbors, aghast, warned her that she would surely fail. (Kirkpatrick wryly quotes Noah Webster’s observation that “the expectation of failure is connected with the very name of a Magazine.”)

From the first issue of the Ladies’ Magazine, launched in 1828, Hale’s editorial philosophy was clear, Kirkpatrick writes: It was to be “a serious intellectual journal with an editor who was intent on exploring the potentially explosive topic of the role of the American woman in modern society.” Hale’s interest in that topic was both personal and patriotic. She was a “cultural nationalist” and embraced “the doctrine of republican motherhood,” the idea that women had a vital role to play in the new nation through instilling virtue and civic responsibility in their children — one reason, she argued, that it was crucial for women to be well educated.

She was not alone in seeing the condition of American women as highly consequential in determining the country’s fate. Alexis de Tocqueville, touring the young republic a few years later, concluded that “the singular prosperity and growing strength of this people must be principally attributed” to “the superiority of their women.”

Hale did not, in the end, fail at editing the Ladies’ Magazine — she cultivated a stable of influential and popular writers, many of them women, and her own stature grew. But by the mid 1830s, the magazine was nonetheless foundering financially. Luckily for her, Louis Godey, the publisher of a rival magazine, convinced her to combine forces with him. She became the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a position she would hold until her retirement at the incredible age of 89.

With Godey’s backing, she was able to publish such significant American writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, and Lydia Huntley Sigourney, along with a constellation of lesser literary lights — and to pay them well. In addition to fiction, verse, and Hale’s own opinionated columns, the magazine featured fashion plates (though she personally had no interest in fashion and deplored, for instance, corsets), recipes, travel writing, advice, book reviews, and essays. Kirkpatrick credits her with introducing the Christmas tree, the white wedding dress, and the polka, among other things, into the mainstream of American life.

Like most opinion journalists, Hale was often inconsistent, and her views evolved over time. Sometimes her arguments were absurd or mistaken (she decried facial hair on men and declared that the Transcendentalist writers would come to nothing). Hardly anyone today would make the case, as she did, that women should not fully participate alongside men in public life, or defend the proposition that women are the moral betters of men. But many of the issues that she pronounced on concerning women’s roles are still contested, even if the bounds of acceptable discourse have shifted.

She thought, for instance, that women were better suited by nature for certain jobs — doctoring and teaching, especially. A proponent of early education and a pioneer in forming the genre of children’s literature, she believed that very young children in particular ought to be exclusively taught by women because, as Kirkpatrick puts it, she thought “men rarely possessed the patience, intuitiveness, and compassion necessary for instructing small children.”

Kirkpatrick notes that the concept of “having it all” would have been foreign to Hale, but she did encounter some of the predicaments that continue to bedevil women who work outside the home, and she met them resourcefully. In Boston with her youngest child, William, at the start of her career, she founded what was perhaps the first kindergarten in America in her boarding house in order to solve the problem of what to do with him while she worked. Later, when Godey wanted her to move to Philadelphia to edit their magazine, she insisted that she be allowed to do the work remotely, so to speak, so that she could stay in Boston with William until he finished his education.

Perhaps owing in part to her extraordinary longevity — she died in 1879, at 90, a year after laying down her pen — it did not take long after Hale’s death for her image to become clothed in a Victorian fustiness that obscured her radical accomplishments. Kirkpatrick has dusted off the cobwebs — uncovering a mind worth encountering and an American life worth honoring.

Source: Literary Lady, Complicated Proto-Feminist

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