When Sarah Josepha Hale looked back on her long life, she saw successful female leadership and profound energy. Through her role as an editor of The Ladies’ Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book, she exerted influence over women’s education and political consciousness throughout the U.S.1 Audiences today may perceive her ideology as culturally or socially conservative. Nonetheless, in her time, her authority and her ideas broke down barriers for middle class women.
Sarah Josepha was born in Newport, New Hampshire, a small, productive riverside town. Her father, Captain Gordon Buell, served as an officer in the American Revolution before marrying Martha Whitilesey and becoming a tavern keeper. Gordon and Martha Buell believed in gender equality in education. Therefore, Sarah Josepha received home schooling not only from her brother Horatio, a graduate of Dartmouth College, but also from her mother. She then became a teacher. At 25 years old, Sarah Josepha married David Hale, a Newport attorney whose family helped found New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College. The couple continued Sarah Josepha’s parents’ tradition, discussing academic questions between themselves and encouraging the curiosity of their five children.2
By 1822, the year David Hale died, Sarah Josepha had become a skillful writer. In 1823, her first collection of poems, The Genius of Oblivion, was published, thanks to financial support from David’s Masonic Lodge. In 1827, her abolitionist novel, Northwood: Life North and South, so entranced the Rev. John Lauris Blake of Boston that he asked her to become editor for his new Ladies’ Magazine. Her most famous book, Poems for Our Children, first published in 1829, included “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” still a popular nursey rhyme today.3
Hale used the Ladies’ Magazine as a platform for socio-cultural editorials and advice columns, design and fashion critiques, and recipes and housekeeping advice. As the first female editor – or “editress,” as she preferred – of an American magazine,4 she became a national arbiter of good taste, manners, family life, and “domestic science.”5 This job kept her in Boston from 1828 to 1841. There, she published two further works, Traits of American Life (1835) and Sketches of American Character (1838),6 both of which featured the “New Republic’s” ideals of American men and women’s equality.7
Hale also engaged in local civic work. In 1833, she helped establish the Seaman’s Aid Society in Boston’s North End. This auxiliary to the Boston Port Society developed job training, financial opportunities, and social support for impoverished wives and children of sailors. It gave women the opportunity to keep their families fed, clothed, and housed.8 In the summer of 1840, a Boston women’s sewing circle of Seaman’s Aid Society members, led by Sarah Josepha Hale, conceived of using a women’s fair to generate the $30,000 necessary to complete the Bunker Hill Monument. Through newspaper articles and letters, they contacted women’s networks throughout New England and down the Atlantic coast.9 Six weeks later, the Bunker Hill Monument Fair successfully raised more than its $30,000 goal.
At mid-century, Sarah Josepha’s stance shifted to “Victorian” gendered territory. She had never been an advocate of women’s involvement in political processes.10 While she belonged to a generation that could not stomach the progressive suffrage movement, she continued to support female education.11
In 1841, Hale’s position as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book (merged with the Ladies’ Magazine in 1837)12 brought her to Philadelphia. As editor for the next 30 years, she influenced women across the U.S. and empowered them as agents distributing American national identity and culture. Hale encouraged women to write for Godey’s and paid them well.13 Her extraordinary 900-page Women’s Record: Sketches of Distinguished Women from the Creation to A.D. 1850 first appeared in 1853. This ‘tour de force’ demonstrated that women were intellectually equal to men. All they needed was education and a female sphere of independence.14
Hale crusaded for many years to make Thanksgiving, a symbol of national unity, a federal holiday. Started in 1846, this long-term trek finally reached its goal in October 1863, when President Lincoln released a proclamation. He declared the last Thursday in November Thanksgiving, as “in the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, the American people should take some time for gratitude.”15
Sarah Josepha Hale retired from Godey’s Lady’s Book in December 1877 at the age of 89. She died in 1879, having made a huge impact on American middle-class culture and gender identity.
Contributed by: Polly Kienle, Park Guide
- Nicole Tonkovitch Hoffman, “Legacy Profile Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1874),” Legacy, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Fall 1990), 47-48; Patricia Okker, Sarah J. Hale and the Tradition of Nineteenth-Century Women Editors (Athens & London: The University of Georgia Press, 2008), 2-3; Granville Ganter, "The Unexceptional Eloquence of Sarah Josepha Hale's Lecturess," The Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society vol. 112, part 2 (October 2002) 269-289.
- Isabelle Webb Entrikin, Sarah Josepha Hale and “Godey’s Lady Book” (Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Press, 1946). For a detailed and analytical portrayal of Hale’s childhood education, see: Okker, Our Sister Editors: Sarah J. Hale and the Tradition of Nineteenth-Century American Women Editors, pp. 39ff. Hale describes her mother’s talent as an educator here: Sarah Josepha Hale, The Ladies’ Wreath: A Selection from the Female Poetic Writers of England and America (Boston: March, Capen and Lyon, 1837).
- Entrikin, Sarah Josepha Hale and “Godey’s Lady Book.” All of these titles can be found online: The Genius of Oblivion; and Other Original Poems (Concord, J.B. Moore, 1823), https://archive.org/details/geniusofoblivion00hale; Northwood; a Tale of New England (Bowles & Dearborn, 1827), https://archive.org/details/northwoodatalen00halegoog; Poems for Our Children : Designed for Families, Sabbath Schools, and Infant Schools, Written to Inculcate Moral Truths and Virtuous Sentiments (Boston: Marsh, Capen & Lyon, 1830), https://archive.org/details/poemsforourchild00hale.
- Ann Smith Franklin has also been recognized as America’s first female editor. After her husband James died in 1735, she took the reins of their shared printing business, which included a newspaper. See: “Ann Smith Franklin, First Lady of Rhode Island Journalism,” Busines and Labor, New England Historical Society, accessed January 21, 2021, https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/ann-smith-franklin-first-woman-printer-of-rhode-island/.
- See in particular: Okker, Sarah J. Hale and the Tradition of Nineteenth-Century Women Editors.
- These two publications are also available online: Traits of American Life (E.L. Carey & A. Hart, 1835), https://archive.org/details/traitsamericanl00halegoog; Sketches of American Character (Philadelphia: Perkins & Purvis, 1843), https://archive.org/details/sketchesofameric00hale.
- Rosemarie Zagarri, “The Rights of Man and Woman in Post-Revolutionary America,” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 2 (Apr., 1998), 203-230.
- “Boston Port and Seamen's Aid Society Records, 1829-1977. Guide to the Collection,” Collection Guides, Massachusetts Historical Society, accessed April 09, 2020, http://www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0015; Nathaniel Dearborn, Dearborn's Reminiscences of Boston: And Guide Through the City and Environs (Boston: N. Dearborn, 1851), 58; “Boston Port & Seamen's Aid Society,” Mariners House: A Seafarer’s Inn with Modern Comfort and Ancient Soul, accessed September 20, 2020, https://marinershouse.org/bpsas.html.
- These articles and letters requested that women’s clubs donate all manner of crafts, pieces of art, and kitchen specialties. For good summaries, see: Richard Frothingham, History of the siege of Boston, and of the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill: also, an account of the Bunker Hill Monument, with illustrative documents (Boston: C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1851), 341ff; Sherbrooke Rogers, Sarah Josepha Hale: A New England Pioneer, 1788-1879 (Grantham, NH: Thomson & Rutter, 1985), 46, 50.
- Okker, Sarah J. Hale and the Tradition of Nineteenth-Century Women Editors, 38-58.
- She helped found Vassar College and wrote editorials about hiring practices that thundered across the nation. See: Hoffman, “Legacy Profile Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1874),” 49.
- Perhaps the best place to locate many editions of Godey’s Lady’s Book online is https://archive.org/.
- Granville Ganter says, “Hale was no radical […] Rather, as the matronly editor of Godey's Lady's Book for forty years, she served as a gentle arbiter of taste for northern middle-class white women, an advocate for their professional development, and an emblem of general respectability” (Ganter, “The Unexceptional Eloquence of Sarah Josepha Hale’s Lecturess,” The Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society vol 112, part 2, (October 2002), 274-275.
- Hale updated the work’s contents several times as she learned of more American female writers. The 1853 edition of Women’s Record can be found here: https://archive.org/details/womansrecordorsk00hale. The following life goal statement can be found on p. 687: “I had remarked that of all the books I saw, few were written by Americans, and none by women. Here was a work, the most fascinating I had ever read […] written by a woman! How happy it made me! The wish to promote the reputation of my own sex, and do something for my own country, were among the earliest mental emotions I can recollect.” The book Hale speaks of is Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.
- Barbara Manzani, “How the 'Mother of Thanksgiving' Lobbied Abraham Lincoln to Proclaim the National Holiday,” History Stories, History, accessed January 04, 2021, https://www.history.com/news/abraham-lincoln-and-the-mother-of-thanksgiving.