Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Women's History Month 2018: Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe in 1909
Julia Ward Howe was a poet, songwriter, abolitionist, suffragette and activist who advocated for causes such as prison reform and international peace.

Born Julia Warn in 1819, she was the fourth of seven children. Her father was a stockbroker and her mother was poet, Julia Rush Cutler.  In 1843, Julia married Samuel Gridley Howe who was 18 years her senior. Julia and her husband were both activists and together edited the abolitionist newspaper Commonwealth.

Despite their shared passion to end slavery, Julia and Samuel did not have a happy marriage. In Elaine Showalter's biography of Julia titled The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe, she paints a distressing picture of the marriage. The biography suggests that Samuel was in love with his male best friend Charles Sumner, and wanted Julia to act not as a partner but as an adoring devotee. Samuel wrote of wanting to keep Julia as a "prisoner [his] arms." Julia would be no one's prisoner even if she did remain in her unhappy marriage.

In 1862, Julia penned for The Atlantic the piece that would make her famous. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" appeared first as a poem and was later set to music. It would become a rallying cry for Union soldiers during the Civil War, but its inspirational powers wouldn't stop there. The women's suffrage movement and black civil rights workers would adopt the hymn later on.

That one poem may have brought Julia fame, but her literary work extends well beyond that. She wrote several collections of poetry, several travel books and a play. Her works have not been as well remembered as her "Battle Hymn" but they were ranked among the best work of her time. George S. Hellman said Julia was "the most notable woman of letters born and bred in the metropolis of America."

Julia's legacy doesn't stop at written works. In addition to advocating for the abolition of slavery, Julia fought for women's rights. She served as one of the founders of the women's suffrage moment working alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Julia had a more conservative approach to women's rights than her well-known contemporaries, but ultimately they joined Julia, who was seeing success with her methods. Even though Julia died because women earned the right to vote, she was a major player in founding and maintaining the movement.

She also started a weekly magazine, the Women's Journal, in 1870, which not only discussed various women's issues, but called for women all over the world to join together to create international peace. In 1871, Julia became the first president of the American chapter of Women’s International Peace Association.

Samuel did not support Julia's writing or her activism for women's rights. While he didn't mind working with her on the abolitionist paper, he didn't like that she wrote about their marriage and women's roles in society.  Samuel tried many tactics to keep her from disobeying him. Julia made concessions to keep her family intact for her children, but that didn't stop her from becoming one of the most prominent and influential women of her era who would make massive strides forward for feminism, civil rights and world peace.

Julia died in 1910 at the age of 91. A choir of 4,000 sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" at her funeral. It's difficult to capture all of Julia's accomplishments in one post or even one book. She may not have lived a happy life in her marriage, but she lived a life of great passion and purpose. Her achievements echo on into the future just like her famous "Battle Hymn."

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