Grave of the Week: Sarah Josepha Hale

Happy Mother’s Day!

My mother is an incredible woman. She was and is a fantastic mother, and a caring grandmother to my son Henry and my late daughter Ida. She is also an accomplished physician. She was an infectious disease doctor at the front lines of the HIV/AIDS epidemic throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and was nationally recognized. In 1995, she briefed President Clinton on the crisis, and later served as the Chief Medical Officer for the Clinton Global Initiative’s AIDS program. Especially as she gained national prominence at the height of the epidemic, however, balancing home life and public and professional life was hard for her. Family leave, flexible schedules, day care provisions: these things are still not pervasive, and were even more scarce when my mother was working full time. She had to return to work only a couple of weeks after the birth of my youngest sister, and the demands of her schedule meant she was often busy at work while we grew up – something accepted unquestioningly of men, but uncommon at the time for women. This was hard for her, and caused her great guilt even as she was doing tremendous good in all aspects of her life.

Grave of Sarah Josepha Hale, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA

As children, for us this was normal; we didn’t give much thought to either what an impressive woman she was and is, or to the politics of her position. In the obnoxious and precocious way only a ten year old can, I once greeted her on the morning of Mother’s Day by saying “you’re a great mother! You know, for someone who does it on the side like you do.” That idea that I was unwittingly (though, it should be said, hilariously) voicing – that a working woman simply couldn’t devote the correct balance of her time to domesticity – was pervasive then, and in many ways remains so. Women struggle with it daily, and the pressures of that false division force women to choose in a way that is never required of their male counterparts.

With the subject of the domestic and public life of mothers in mind, this week’s Grave of the Week is Sarah Josepha Hale. By any nineteenth century measure – and by most measures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as well – Hale was an extraordinarily successful woman. She was an author and editor, becoming the first woman ever to edit a major magazine when she took up the helm of the Ladies Magazine in 1827. She was a strong advocate of expanding higher education to women, with tremendous influence throughout the mid-1800s. She was also the most important force behind the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, pressuring President Lincoln to expand a previously regional celebration nationwide.

Yet Hale was also very much a defender of domesticity. For Hale, the woman’s role was centered on the moral rearing of the nation: her magazine, though run by one of the most independent women the country has known, was a magazine that focused on women’s roles in the home. Hale encouraged women to seek an education “not that they may usurp the situation, or encroach on the prerogatives of man; but that each individual may lend her aid to the intellectual and moral character of those within her sphere.” Hale saw suffrage as an unwelcome bending of traditional roles, and believed women were there to “silently” influence their husbands and men around them, not to participate directly. Even her most direct political advocacy was in favor of a deeply domestic holiday tied up with celebrations of the home and moral family celebration. Societal boundaries were difficult for even an accomplished woman like Hale to completely ignore.

Grave of Dorothea Dix, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA

This dual pressure was not uncommon for women during the reform movements of the nineteenth century. Dorothea Dix, for example, attained tremendous influence as an advocate for prison and mental heath reform, yet could only address the Massachusetts State Legislature indirectly through a male colleague. Her advocacy in that field was only possible because it was in and of itself domestic: the care of the indigent, insane, and criminal. As historian Daniel Walker Howe states, Dix “scrupulously avoided” discussing more politically-fraught issues such as women’s rights and slavery so that she could be taken seriously in her reform work. Though many other women were engaged in those struggles in the 1840s, few were taken as seriously within the male political structure, north and south, as Dix was; her conscious choice to circumscribe her advocacy within “acceptable” boundaries was something she saw as necessary in order to affect the change she sought.

This tension between domestic and public remains very much embedded in our culture. One can find it circling around debates over paid family leave, pay equity, and women’s health, or hovering over the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Change is happening – there are, for example, far more stay-at-home dads than there used to be and we now say ‘family leave’ instead of maternity leave, implying a more shared sense of responsibility – but it is slow, with setbacks along the way.

As adults, my sisters and I now recognize the extraordinary sacrifices my mother made for us and for her career, and the incredibly number of people she helped. Both of my sisters are in the medical field – a nurse and a doctor – because of the road my mother helped to clear, and their positions are stronger because of her. Women like Hale, like Dix, and like my mother have always been forced to choose, to limit themselves: to work around a system that wants to pigeonhole them. Perhaps someday we’ll have a system that works for them instead.

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