Scrolling through the International Women’s day hashtag has me, as a woman, slightly confused. I’m not sure whether to feel empowered or slightly disgusted. While many amazing women are being celebrated, I’m seeing just as many posts that are using the topic as yet another excuse to over-sexualize women, or to post vague “rah-rah” messages like “Smile at yourself, ladies. You’re crushing it.”
Well, that’s very nice, but actually, I’m not crushing it today. I didn’t sleep well last night, and I’m only just barely crawling toward the start line. I’m not a pioneer in some daring field. My resume is tiny and unimpressive. Should I not smile at myself, then?
Or the posts that really drive me up the wall… posts that seem to equate “female empowerment” with how many foul words you can string together in one sentence, or that seem to think today is International Let’s-All-Make-Fun-of-Men Day.
Since when does gender equality require me to either flaunt or suppress my femininity? Since when does it require me to pump myself up with empty slogans rather than evaluating myself honestly? Since when does it mean I can’t be content with a quiet life? Am I not enough exactly as I am; a human being with a personality and dreams that have nothing to do with my gender?
Anyhow, rant over. Time now to celebrate a woman who is truly inspirational to me, and who has been one of my main role models since I first researched her for a history project when I was thirteen years old.
Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879) was a writer, a schoolteacher, the first woman to become editor of a magazine, a single mother of five children, and a tireless worker for women’s rights.
And history remembers (or rather, doesn’t remember) her primarily as the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and the woman responsible for the national holiday of Thanksgiving. Probably because she wasn’t a muck-raking suffragette.
Let’s talk about some of her other accomplishments, shall we?
She received her primary education from her mother (homeschoolers, raise your fists!), and as a pre-teen gained a second-hand college education through her brother, who would teach her everything he learned at Dartmouth during his summer vacations.
Her marriage was a happy one, as she found a man who believed her to be his true equal, but he died in 1822, leaving her to support five children on her own. At that time, the only options for a widowed mother were to open some sort of genteel millinery shop or throw themselves on the mercy of relatives.
But those options weren’t good enough for Sarah Hale. Oh, no. Her choice was publish a book of poetry, and later a novel, Northwood, which dealt directly with the issue of slavery, highlighting its dehumanizing effect on not only the slaves, but also the slave owners. She was not only one of America’s first woman authors, but also one of the first writers to challenge slavery head-on.
Following the success of her novel, she became the first woman editor, first of the American Ladies’ Magazine, and then of Godey’s Lady’s Book. She used her subsequent influence to work for women’s rights, publishing the work of many woman writers, employing women in every aspect of the magazine’s creation, and campaigning for many causes, including both physical and higher education for girls. In fact, she helped to found Vassar College. She also founded the Seaman’s Aid Society to help support the wives and daughters of Boston sailors who had died at sea.
She found side projects in campaigning for Mount Vernon to be preserved, and for the Bunker Hill Monument to be built.
Oh, and she was also responsible for popularizing Niagara Falls as a honeymoon destination.
All this, and much more, Sarah Hale did quietly; never seeking personal glory. And never sacrificing one ounce of her womanhood.
Now there’s a woman worth celebrating.