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Julia Ward Howe, Feminist Pioneer

Julia Ward Howe was a true 19th century Renaissance woman.  In addition to being a serious scholar of philosophy and fluent in seven languages, she was a social reformer, writer, abolitionist, suffragette, and one of the early founders of Mother’s Day.  Author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” this one-time Bond Street resident did not have an easy life, but she did have a remarkable one.  That’s why she’s one of many great women, and civil rights or social justice pioneers, featured on Village Preservation’s  Civil Rights and Social Justice map.

Julia Ward Howe, c. 1855. Engraving after a drawing by Porter; Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Julia Ward Howe, c. 1855. Engraving after a drawing by Porter; Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Mansion of Samuel Ward, 16 Bond Street, source: www.juliawardhowe.org
Mansion of Samuel Ward, Bond Street and Broadway, source: www.juliawardhowe.org

Julia Ward Howe was born in May 27, 1819 in New York City to Samuel and Julia (Rush Cutler) Ward.  Samuel was a successful Wall Street Banker and Calvinist.  Her mother, Julia, a published poet, died when her daughter was five years old, leaving Julia’s upbringing that of her siblings to Samuel.  It was during this time that the family moved into their house at the corner of Broadway and Bond Street (1833-1839).  Julia’s formal education was limited to private tutors and girl’s schools until age of 16.  Through her brother she became acquainted with the writings of Balzac and Sand, and came to meet people like Longfellow, Dickens, Charles Sumner and Margaret Fuller

When their father died in 1839, Julia and her two sisters moved in with their brother Sam.  He was newly married to Emily Astor, grandaughter of John Jacob Astor, and it was she who introduced the Ward sisters to New York Society.  Shortly thereafter, Julia moved to Boston and met and married Samuel Gridley Howe, a physician and the first director of Perkins Institute for the Blind in Watertown, Massachsetts, as well as an outspoken abolitionist.

Theirs was a tumultuous marriage; Julia went from being an independent-minded New York heiress to a wife and mother in a remote Massachusetts town.  Sam forbade her from working outside the home and felt her interests in poetry and philosophy should be supplanted by interests that revolved around her roles as wife and mother.  Secretly, she began writing a novel.  Not discovered until 1977, “The Hermaphrodite” is the story of an intersex scholar who lived at times as a man and at other times as a woman.  By 1852 Julia separated from Sam but later reconciled.  After the reconciliation, she published anonymously a collection of her poetry, “Passion Flowers.”  These poems did not remain anonymous for long and openly challenged a husband’s authority, shocking 19th century social conventions and humiliating her husband.  Needless to say, the marriage remained strained.

Julia became involved in the reform movement and supported issues like abolition, women’s rights, prison reform and education.  In spite of Sam’s objections to Julia’s work outside the home, he relied on her as editor and writer for his short-lived newspaper, The Commonwealth.  Following  a visit with her husband to Washington D.C. in 1861 during which she met Abraham Lincoln, Howe was inspired to write “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” bringing her instant celebrity.

Julia was especially involved in the cause for Women’s Suffrage and in 1870 she founded the weekly Woman’s Journal, a suffragist magazine which was widely read and to which she contributed for 20 years.  In that same year she wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” which was an appeal to women around the world for peace in light of the carnage of the Civil War.  She called for the inauguration of Mother’s Day on June 2nd, 1874, which she envisioned as a day of solemn gathering and contemplation, in which women from all over the world could meet to discuss the means to achieve world peace.  Although she was not successful in establishing the holiday (in 1914 Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation designating the second Monday of May the National holiday), her proclamation from 1870 shows the original intentions of the holiday:

Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.

“Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, disarm! The sword is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after his own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

Julia Ward Howe, 1909. Source: US Library of Congress, Prints and Photograph's Division
Julia Ward Howe, 1909. Source: US Library of Congress, Prints and Photograph’s Division

By the time of her husband’s death in 1876, she had an established career as a preacher, a reformer, a writer and a poet.  Her first journal entry after Sam’s death was: “Start my new life today.”  For the next forty years she traveled the world and through her celebrity, promoted many causes including  Women’s Rights, Peace, Prison and Education reform.  On October 17, 1910 she died of pneumonia in her home in Rhode Island.  Her children collaborated on her biography which was published in 1916 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

Want to learn about more civil rights and social justice pioneers from our neighborhood?  Check out Village Preservation’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Map.

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