Sarah Josepha Hale: An Overlooked Thanksgiving Role Model

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November 18, 2014

While I researched yesterday’s article 10 Random Things You Might Not Know about Thanksgiving, something made me progressively more angry. Number 6 on that list includes Sarah Josepha Hale who campaigned for Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Articles mention her frequently in connection to the celebration with the explanation “author of Mary Had a Little Lamb.” But as I dug deeper into the facts, I discovered an amazing woman, backed by an equally amazing family, who fought against societal norms, social injustice, and her own difficult circumstances, to leave an enormous mark on popular culture of the 1800’s. Why do people reduce such a role model to a nursery rhyme? Instead, we can all learn from Ms. Hale’s example.

One of my favorite parts of Sarah Hale’s story is how it begins. Her father and mother believed in equal education for all of their children. They homeschooled their 3 boys and 1 girl. In those times, women could not pursue higher education, so Sarah’s older brother went to Dartmouth, came home during the summer, gave his books to his sister, and tutored her in all of the subjects he had learned that year.  We can take so much away from this simple beginning. The ideals of the parents shaped all of these children so that their son was willing to make an enormous effort to ensure his sister’s achievement and their daughter was anxious to grab the opportunity with both hands. They both must have put tremendous effort into their work. It makes me wonder how I can create that sort of group effort and drive in my own home!

Sarah became a teacher at the age of 18, in a time when very few women were in that profession. A few years later, in 1813, she married a lawyer, David Hale, who valued her intellect so much that they established a 2 hour “academic period” each evening dedicated to learning together. Seven years and five children later, her husband died, leaving her with a family to support in a time offering very little opportunity to women.

I’ve seen my kids fold up and quit under circumstances much less dire but rather than throw her hands up in defeat, Sarah gave us an example of perseverance and ingenuity. She decided that, given her love of reading and learning, she would write. Her second book, Northwood: Life North and South, detailed life in New England. It was one of the first books to address slavery as well as one of the first written by an American woman. She believed very strongly that slavery was wrong and “dehumanized not only the slave but the master.”

Her writings earned her an offer as an editor position for Ladies’ Magazine which she took in hopes of educating women. When this journal merged with Lady’s Book and Magazine, Hale became its editor and held the position for 40 years. The magazine became the most successful ladies magazine of the 1800’s and introduced many of the cultural norms we know today. By featuring them in its pages, it contributed to having Christmas trees in houses and wearing white wedding dresses. Hale refused to do what most other journals did at the time and reprint articles from Britain. She insisted on original American authors and printed popular names like Poe, Longfellow, and Emmerson. It was from this position that she wrote her editorials advocating Thanksgiving as an important family and national holiday. And yes, while editor, she wrote numerous books including the one with “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Surely this is enough. We can tell our children Sarah Hale’s story and point out the power of learning, free thinking, hard work, and perseverance.  But she did not simply write while in this position. While there she applied her influence to better the community. Her work includes:

  • Increased economic independence, property rights, and status of women
  • Improved job opportunities and wages for women
  • Fund raised to preserve Mount Vernon as a National Landmark
  • Picked up the fund raising for the Bunker Hill War Memorial in Boston when men were unable to raise the money
  • Supported women’s high education and raise societal awareness and acceptance of all women’s colleges including Vassar
  • Backed Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell’s bid to practice as a doctor
  • Advocated physical activity and public playgrounds for children
  • Of course, campaigning for Thanksgiving to be a universal national holiday that stayed away from politics and focused on family and unity.

This Thanksgiving, as you talk about the first feast or family dinners of the past, use the moment to tell your kids about Sarah Josepha Hale, the fierce woman who not only wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and helped pave the way for them to get the day off, but broke out of social norms and worked her tail off to make a lasting mark on the world.

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