Ladies Resist, Counter-resist, and Complicate

Editor’s Note: How will women vote? The question has been on the minds of politicians and pundits since before the ratification of the nineteenth amendment. Women’s potential votes carried power on major questions such as citizenship, the rights of enslaved (and later, formerly-enslaved) blacks, and temperance. The country could change in women’s hands.

But women — including white women, the focus of much polling and hand-wringing this midterm season — have never been a monolith. If women today who believed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford allegations of attempted sexual assault against now Justice Brett Kavanaugh had lived in the 1800s, they would have found ample support for their resistance to the status quo. So would women who now want to protect men against false allegations or who offer other challenges to what many people see as progress.

In the latter group–at least, sort of–was Sarah Josepha Hale, who used her editorial position at the magazine, Godey’s Lady Book, to speak against suffrage and to take other controversial stances. The Athenaeum of Philadelphia houses a file of Hale’s correspondence, along with one of the country’s most complete collections of Godey’s Lady’s Book.Below, Peter Conn, Executive Director of the Athenaeum, offers more about Hale and her print media as a tool of resistance.


Sarah Josepha Hale

By Peter Conn

Little known today, Sarah Josepha Hale (1788–1879) could claim several significant accomplishments in her long and eventful life. She played a major role in the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument and the preservation of George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon. She lobbied successfully for the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday (Abraham Lincoln issued the requisite proclamation).

Her second volume of poetry, Poems for Our Children(1830) included one of the most familiar bits of verse in the English language, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” originally called “Mary’s Lamb.” (In 1877 Thomas Edison recited the opening lines of “Mary’s Lamb” as the first speech to be recorded on his newly invented phonograph.)Hale was also the author of several novels, to a couple of which I will return.

However, it was Hale’s forty-year tenure as the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, beginning in 1837, that placed her among the most influential women of her time. The magazine’s circulation reached 160,000 by 1860, making it the most widely circulated women’s journal of the nineteenth century. Along with poetry and short stories, and advice on child rearing and home furnishing, the magazine’s attractions included beautifully colored illustrations of current female fashions.

Courtesy The Atheneum of Philadelphia

The essays that she wrote for the magazine, along with the work that she commissioned and published, reveal a complex and indeed divided set of political and cultural commitments.

On the one hand, through her own professional accomplishment – a widowed mother of five children supervising every detail of a major magazine – Hale exemplified a high level of independent financial and managerial skill. And in her essays and speeches, she argued strenuously in favor of expanding educational opportunities for girls and women. She also wrote in favor of conferring property rights on married women, the subject of vigorous and sometimes rancorous debate through much of the nineteenth century.

On the other hand, Hale argued with equal energy against female suffrage and embraced a quite traditional role for women: as homemakers and as fit mothers of future American patriots. In her view, “to induce women to think they have a just right to participate in the public duties of government [would be] injurious to their best interests and derogatory to their character.”

Courtesy The Athenaeum of Philadelphia

A similar division marked Hale’s attitude toward slavery. Her first novel, Northwood; A Tale of New England (1827), contained among its subjects one of the earliest representations of slavery in American fiction. However, while she called slavery “a stain on our national character,” she opposed abolition, instead supporting the relocation of the nation’s slaves to Liberia. She endorsed the work of the Ladies Liberia School Association, which raised money to found schools and underwrite teachers in that country. And her novel, Liberia, takes as its theme “the advantages Liberia offers to the African, who among us has no home, no position, and no future.”

In short, in the landscape of nineteenth century resistance, on the great issues of women’s rights and slavery, Hale is to be found in divergent and often contrary locations: opposing both slavery and abolition, supporting both women’s education and a traditional commitment to women’s domestic roles.