The Power of a Pen: Sara Joseph Hale

SEPT / OCT 2017: BY CAROL STARKEY

Quick, picture someone who’s powerful. Do you have the person in your mind? Is he tall? Does he have lots of muscles or great charisma? Your imagined person may be strong indeed, but I know of someone who, though not flashy, tall, or muscled, was very powerful. Her name was Sarah Josepha Hale, and though she was born over 200 years ago, many of her life’s contributions we still feel today.

When she was a girl, her mother encouraged her to read and learn. Girls couldn’t go to college, she so learned from her brother, Horatio, who attended college and educated her as much as he could. In her 20s, she married David Hale, and they shared a love of words. But David died of pneumonia when Sarah was pregnant with their fifth child. To support herself and her children, she took a job making hats, but her true love was writing. At night while her children slept, she wrote. Five years later, a publisher accepted first novel, Northwood.

She also wrote for magazines and they not only published her articles, they paid her for her work! Before long, Ladies’ Magazine offered Sarah a job. Her magazine stood out. Men wrote all the others and showcased the latest fashions from Europe. Sarah wanted to expand women’s minds, so she published articles on history, exercise, science, the evils of slavery, household advice, short stories, and poetry. She couldn’t do away with fashion but ensured she gave them something to think about besides clothing. Several years later, she went to work for Godey’s Lady’s Book, another influential magazine.

Sarah didn’t consider herself a feminist, and didn’t support the growing women’s movement, but did much for women. She advocated for female education, believed women had a place as teachers and doctors (she convinced Vassar College to hire female teachers instead of just males), and she wanted women to think for themselves.

sara2Sarah is also responsible for turning Bunker Hill and Mount Vernon into national landmarks, and writing the first anti-slavery novel (years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin). She wrote books and articles until she was 90 years old. The public best know her for her letters (she wrote them and poetry until her death in 1879). If she didn’t like something, she wrote a letter. Her most well-known letters came about because of Thanksgiving. President Washington had set aside the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving, but as the years passed, fewer and fewer people celebrated. Most of the country viewed it as a New England holiday, and Sarah wanted to change that. She saw it as something to draw the entire nation together.

In 1894, Sarah wrote to President Zachary Taylor asking him to reinstate Thanksgiving. He refused. When Millard Fillmore became president, she asked him. Again, a man told her no. So when Franklin Pierce took office, she wrote him, and when he turned her down, she tried President James Buchanan. Again, the answer was no.

Sarah refused to quit. When President Lincoln was in office, she wrote him. The country was in the midst of a civil war, and though both Sarah and Abraham Lincoln knew a holiday wouldn’t erase the hurt and suffering, they also knew it could boost morale and remind America’s citizens of the good things they had to be thankful for. Lincoln did as Sarah asked, proclaiming the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving, a national holiday. Though it took 36 years, Sarah never gave up.

One last thing. I’m sure you know this song: “Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb, Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow.”

Sarah penned this after a lamb followed one of her pupils to school one day, then waited for the child outside the building until the end of the day.

Power comes in many forms. In Sarah’s case, it came through her pen.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carol Starkley lives in New Jersey with her husband, three daughters, and numerous pets. She likes to read, write, bake, and dabble with the clarinet. She also infrequently blogs.

 

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