Biography of Famous American Sarah Josepha Hale Part 2

About the famous American feminist Sarah Josepha Hale, biography and history of the Thanksgiving proponent.


SARAH JOSEPHA HALE (1788-1879). Woman of letters.

S.J.H., as she signed her most famous and enduring work, was a tireless advocate of education for women. The most conspicuous result of her efforts is Vassar College, which she was influential in organizing. She later persuaded Matthew Vassar to drop the word Female from Vassar Female College because she insisted that the word was too vulgar to be used as a synonym for woman. S.J.H. remained adamant, however, that these educated women belonged in the home, not in the marketplace. For this opinion, based on deeply felt religious principles but also congenial to the temper of her readership, she has been vilified by feminists from that day to this.

In fairness, we ought to recall that she did not believe in the equality of the sexes. She would have been shocked at the notion. To her, women were infinitely superior to men. She said so time and again, in religious terminology that carried great authority in her era. In Manners; or, Happy Homes and Good Society All the Year Round (1868), she wrote that woman "was the last work of creation. Every step, from matter to man, had been in the ascending scale. Was this last step downward?" Lest any be tempted to give the wrong answer to that rhetorical question, she made it plainer two paragraphs later: "Not a ray of hope can be found in the destiny of the man, save through the hope given to the woman." However reactionary her woman-belongs-in-the-home philosophy may now seem, the fact remains that she told women they were better than men in language of tremendous emotional power and repeated that litany for half a century in the pages of the most influential magazine in America.

A simple list of her accomplishments is mind-boggling: She organized subscriptions for the Bunker Hill Monument, convinced Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday, and pioneered everything from playgrounds and calisthenics to seamen's aid and women's rights--in wages, in working conditions, in day nurseries, in the property rights of wives. She helped preserve Mount Vernon, sent out women medical missionaries, and insisted on the phrase "domestic science" to add prestige to the ancient and noble calling of housewifery--all the while cranking out cookbooks and gift books and every imaginable kind of copy. The 1904 Encyclopaedia Britannica aptly called her "indefatigable."

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