Melanie Kirkpatrick had only heard of Sarah Josepha Hale several years ago, when she wrote a book about the origins of the National Thanksgiving Day.
Hale was a major proponent of a national Thanksgiving Day, to supplant the state’s many public holidays. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the national holiday in 1863, but Hale, who grew up in Newport and went on to become an influential magazine editor, was perhaps the strongest supporter of a common day of gratitude.
In Hale, someone Newport residents have known for a long time, Kirkpatrick found an intricate figure worthy of a fresh look. As much as anyone, Hale had helped women advance during the nation’s first century, laying the foundation upon which subsequent women’s rights movements were built.
“I just really wanted to tell the story of this interesting woman,” Kirkpatrick said in a phone interview from his home in Connecticut.
Editor-in-Chief: Sarah Josepha Hale and the Making of the Modern American Woman came out earlier this month and Kirkpatrick will be speaking about his book Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Richards Free Library in Newport.
Kirkpatrick’s book reveals a woman who rose from humble circumstances to become one of the most important literary figures of her young nation. Hale has published works by American writers on American subjects in an attempt to weave the identity of the country. And she was a tireless advocate for women, arguing in editorials that they had a right to education and a career.
Hale was born in 1788, the year before George Washington took office, and was well educated, first by her mother, Martha Buell, then by her brother, Horatio, who taught her what he learned as a student at Dartmouth College. She married a lawyer, David Hale, who opened his practice in Newport.
Her husband’s death from pneumonia in 1822, while Sarah was pregnant with their fifth child, set her on the path to literary influence. Without any other suitable means of livelihood, she decided to make a living as a writer. His first novel, Northwood: the life of the North and the South, one of the first books on slavery, appeared in 1827.
Soon after, at the end of 1827, she received an invitation to edit the Ladies’ magazine, In Boston. She entrusted parents with everything but her youngest child, moved to Boston, and began her long career influencing the nation.
The first issue appeared in January 1828. (She edited the first four issues from her home in Newport.) Where other women had tried to publish magazines, none had succeeded. Hale immediately showed that she was playing for good.
Kirkpatrick writes: “From the inaugural issue, it was clear that this was something different from the female fare that had preceded it. It was a serious intellectual journal with an editor who intended to explore the potentially explosive subject of the role of American women in modern society.
Then almost 40 years, Hale worked as an editor for the next 50 years. From that first issue, her interests were evident: she advocated for the education of women and girls and published American writers on American topics.
Among the authors she has published are Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and William Cullen Bryant.
“She set out to help develop an American literary culture,” Kirkpatrick said.
But his influence extended far beyond writing. The articles published by Hale shaped the way Americans, especially women, dressed, cooked and acted.
In time, the net she threw reached the whole country. The Book of the Lady of Godey, which Hale edited from 1837 until his retirement in 1877, had a circulation of 150,000 copies by 1860, making it the most influential magazine in the country. It was widely known as “Mrs. Hale’s Magazine.”
“In the two decades before the Civil War began in 1861, no woman was better known or more influential,” writes Kirkpatrick.
Nowhere has she been more influential than in her defense of women’s rights. In 1828, only half of American women could read and write, writes Kirkpatrick. In every issue of the magazines she edited, at least one article extolled the merits of educating women and girls.
“The change in attitude towards educating women has been one of the fastest shifts in public opinion in American history,” writes Kirkpatrick. By the time Hale retired, more girls than boys were in high school, 30% of colleges were co-ed, and several women’s colleges had opened.
Today, despite her accomplishments, Hale is not very well known, and if she is, she is often struck down for what she did not do. She believed that there were “separate spheres” for men and women, although she believed that there were roles for which women were uniquely suited, such as teaching and medicine.
“She had the idea that female doctors should treat women and children exclusively,” Kirkpatrick said.
Hale also opposed women’s suffrage, arguing that they were too morally superior to men to endure corruption in politics and the ballot box.
But the suffrage movement was built on his efforts. The women who were educated by her led the fight for the 19th Amendment.
“You judge her by her accomplishments,” Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick worked at the Wall Street newspaper for 30 years, first as editor and later as deputy editor of the editorial page. The Journal of The opinion page is one of the world’s most powerful outlets for conservative thought. Retired from NewspaperKirkpatrick now writes independently and is a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank.
Editor in Chief Also comes from a conservative publishing house, but the writing is largely free of politics.
“It’s an approach to history that was deliberate on my part,” Kirkpatrick said. Hale deserves to be evaluated in the context of her time, she added.
Hale wrote millions of words, but not all of his writing survives, including diaries and personal letters.
“What is lost is a sense of his daily life,” said Kirkpatrick – his social circle, his unvarnished thoughts on public figures.
But Hale herself cared little about such things, preferring instead to talk about her work. At one point, she pushed away a Newport historian who wanted biographical information. He wisely let her write the entry on his own life.
Alex Hanson can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3207.