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The Queen of My Self

If the name Julia Ward Howe is familiar at all today, it is as the writer of the American anthem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” But she was famous in her lifetime as poet, essayist, lecturer, biographer, and social reformer.

She worked to end slavery, helped to initiate the women’s movement in many states, and organized for international peace — all at a time, “when to do so was a thankless office, involving public ridicule and private avoidance,” she noted.

Julia Ward was born into privilege in 1819 in New York City, the third of the six children of Julia Rush Cutler and Samuel Ward, a wealthy banker. She was tutored at home and at private schools in literature, languages, science, and mathematics. She was fluent in French and German and red Greek and Latin with ease.

When she was 16 she left school and, in her words, “began thereafter to study in good earnest,” continuing throughout her life to read literature, history, and philosophy. By the time she was 20, she had written literary criticism published anonymously in the Literary and Theological Review and the New York Review.

Her mother died when Julia was five. The death of her father when she was twenty, left her with the wherewithal to pursue her interests. She went to Boston to meet Wiliam Ellery Channing, Charles Sumner, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, all well-known intellectuals of the time.

Also during that visit, she visited the New England Institute for the Blind (later the Perkins Institute) and meet Laura Bridgman, the phenomenal blind, deaf-mute student of Samuel Gridley Howe, the pioneer educator of children with multiple handicaps.

A courtship began, and a wedding followed in April, 1843. Though strongly attracted to one another, both expressed misgivings before their marriage.

The couple had five children in twelve years. A sixth, born later, died in early childhood.

In 1848 Julia had poems published in two anthologies, much to her husband’s displeasure and her own despair at his refusal to accept her writing. She enjoyed a rare and brief opportunity to work with her husband in 1853 when he edited The Commonwealth, a free-soil journal, and she contributed social and literary criticism. But for most of her marriage she was unfulfilled and frustrated by his lack of respect and support.

The strokes of the pen need deliberation as much as the sword needs swiftness.

A collection of Julia’s poems, Passion Flowers, was published anonymously in 1854, and the author’s identity quickly became an open secret. In the New York Tribune George Ripley called the poems “a product wrung with tears and prayer from the deepest soul of the writer. . . . They form an entirely unique class in the whole range of female literature.”

Other reviews said: “It really is a grave thing, and, in this country, a rare thing, to publish such a book as this.” ” The book seemed to let out a whole history of domestic unhappiness. . . . What does her husband think of it?”

He “was very angry about the book,” Julia wrote to her sister, “and I really thought at one time that he would have driven me to insanity, so horribly did he behave.” In her journal she wrote: “I have been married twenty years today. In the course of that time I have never known my husband to approve of any act of mine, which I myself valued. Books—poems—essays—everything has been contemptible in his eyes because not his way of doing things. . . . I am much grieved and disconcerted.”

They considered divorce, but Samuel’s demand to keep two of the children ended the matter for Julia. Adjustments were gradually made on both sides of the troubled marriage, though a lingering problem was Howe’s management of Julia’s Ward inheritance. “His tyrannical instincts,” she wrote, “more than any direct purpose, have made him illiberal with me in money matters, and if he can possibly place this so I cannot easily use it, he will, only because money is power, and a man never wishes a woman to have any which she does not derive from him.”

Every life has its actual blanks, which the ideal must fill up, or which else remain bare and profitless forever.

In 1857 another book of Julia’s poems, Words for the Hour, came out, and in the same year her play, The World’s Own was performed in New York and Boston. In 1860 her report of a trip to Cuba was published in the New York Tribune.

During the 1850s Julia joined William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery group. When the Civil War broke out both Howes worked with the Sanitary Commission. On a trip to Washington in 1861, they went to watch a Union army review, which was suddenly dispersed by a Confederate attack. On the way back to the city in their carriage surrounded by retreating troops, the Howe party began to sing patriotic songs, including the popular “John Brown’s Body.” James Freeman Clarke, one of the party, suggested to Julia that she write new and better lyrics for the tune.

At the hotel late that night, the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” began forming in her mind. Careful not to wake the children, she groped in the dark for pencil and paper and wrote the poem. In the morning she made only one or two changes. In February, 1862, The Atlantic published “The Battle Hymn,” paying its author $5. Gradually the song caught on until it swept the North.

During and after the war, Howe appeared publicly many times. In 1864 she read a poem at a gala New York event honoring William Cullen Bryant’s 70th birthday. She also read her essays and lectures to private gatherings.

In 1868 when she was 49 years old, Julia Ward Howe joined Caroline Severance in founding the New England Woman’s Club. She also signed the call to the meeting that formed the New England Woman Suffrage Association and served as its president, 1868-77 and 1893-1910. In 1869 she and Lucy Stone led the formation of the American Woman Suffrage Association when its members separated from the National Association of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Howe presided over the Massachusetts Suffrage Association, 1870-78 and 1891-93. From its first issue in 1870 she edited and contributed to the Woman’s Journal founded by Lucy Stone.

During the first two thirds of my life, I looked to the masculine idea of character as the only true one. I sought its inspiration, and referred my merits and demerits to its judicial verdict. . . . The new domain now made clear to me was that of true womanhood—woman no longer in her ancillary relation to her opposite, man, but in her direct relation to the divine plan and purpose, as a free agent, fully sharing with man every human right and every human responsibility. This discovery was like the addition of a new continent to the map of the world, or of a new testament to the old ordinances.

Her friend Higginson noted the change in Julia as she discovered this new domain: “It gave a new brightness to her face, a new cordiality in her manner, made her calmer, firmer; she found herself among new friends and could disregard old critics.”

In the 1870s, during the Franco-Prussian war she began a one-woman peace crusade that began with an impassioned “appeal to womanhood” to rise against war. She translated her Mother’s Peace proclamation into several languages and distributed it widely. In 1872 she went to London to promote an international Woman’s Peace Congress but was not able to bring it off. Back in Boston, she initiated a Mothers’ Peace Day observance on the second Sunday in June and held the meeting for a number of years. Her idea spread but was later replaced by the Mothers’ Day holiday now celebrated in May.

By the 1870s, Samuel’s resistance to his wife’s public appearances had softened into an amused admiration of her abilities. Before he died in 1876 he confessed his marital transgressions, and the tension between them dissolved. Julia’s biography of her husband, Memoir of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, 1876, is full of praise for his character and achievements.

After his death She continued writing and lecturing, organizing women’s clubs wherever she went. In 1908 Julia Ward Howe was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Not long before her death Smith College accorded her an honorary degree. The ceremony included “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” often performed to celebrate her appearances.

During Howe’s last years younger women sought her out and interviewed her. Her advice to one visitor was “Study Greek, my dear, it’s better than a diamond necklace.” On her 91st birthday a reporter asked her for a motto for the women of America. She recommended, “Up to date!”

When I see the elaborate study and ingenuity displayed by women in the pursuit of trifles, I feel no doubt of their capacity for the most herculean undertakings.

Julia Ward Howe died on October 17, 1910. Services were held at Church of the Disciples and at Symphony Hall with crowds overflowing both buildings. Maud Howe Elliott wrote, “A long succession of meetings of commemoration were held by her church, her clubs, the many associations she had founded and worked for. So great was the outpouring of love and reverence that it seemed as if her beloved name were writ in fire across the firmament.”

  • The strokes of the pen need deliberation as much as the sword needs swiftness.
  • Every life has its actual blanks, which the ideal must fill up, or which else remain bare and profitless forever.
  • I am confirmed in my division of human energies. Ambitious people climb, but faithful people build.
  • When I see the elaborate study and ingenuity displayed by women in the pursuit of trifles, I feel no doubt of their capacity for the most herculean undertakings.
  • He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored… [more]
  • ‘Twas red with the blood of freemen and white with the fear of the foe;
And the stars that fit in their courses ‘gainst tyrants its symbols know. [from “The Flag”]
  • Arise then, women of this day! … [more]
  • The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession. [more]
  • I think nothing is religion which puts one individual absolutely above others, and surely nothing is religion which puts one sex above another…. [more]
  • Any religion which sacrifices women to the brutality of men is no religion…. [more]
  • Marriage, like death, is a debt we owe to nature.

 

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Donna Henes is the author of The Queen of My Self: Stepping into Sovereignty in Midlife. She offers counseling and upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity. Consult the MIDLIFE MIDWIFE™

The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to thequeenofmyself@aol.com.

 

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