When young women visited Julia Ward Howe, famous author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and crusader for extending the franchise to women, they inevitably asked the suffragist sage what they should do to prepare for their futures. “Study Greek, my dear, it’s better than a diamond necklace,” she suggested.
That was Howe. Erudite, original, and literary. Julia Ward Howe will forever be remembered as the author of the immortal, thumping anthem that is still sung at the funerals of the great and good.
Authorship of the “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862, when Howe was 42, overshadowed her other achievements, including her career as a prominent suffragist. She was a late in life convert to the cause of voting rights for women, but once committed, she was an indefatigable champion.
When the suffragist movement split in 1869 over the over ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed suffrage to former slaves but not women, Howe joined forces with the moderates, Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and others who were willing to embrace the Fifteenth Amendment, despite the flaw.
Firebrand Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony denounced the Fifteenth Amendment as an injustice to women. The suffragist movement was split until the 1890s. Stanton and Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association, which called for reform on a wide array of issues, including divorce law. NWSA pursued a federal amendment as the only way to secure the vote for women. Men were not included in its membership.
Meanwhile, Howe, Stone Blackwell, Mary Livermore, and other more moderate reformers organized the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. AWSA was a single-issue organization that concentrated solely on the right to vote. It welcomed male reformers into its ranks and advocated a state-by-state strategy as opposed to a federal amendment. In 1870 Stone established The Women’s Journal, which Howe edited and contributed to for two decades.
Julia Ward Howe was born into a wealthy New York family in 1819. Her father, Samuel Ward, was a banker, and her mother, Julia Rush Cutler, was a poet. She died when Julia was five. An aunt took charge of Julia’s education, hiring private tutors and exposing Julia to literature, music and the study of foreign languages. Her brother married an Astor and Julia and her siblings moved in New York’s best social circles.
“These men and women had been champions of the slave. They now asked for wives and mothers those civil rights which had been given to the negro.”
Howe’s biographer Elaine Showalter, the feminist scholar, described Julia in her early years as being like “the princess in the castle,” “cherished, indulged and praised,” but at the same time acknowledging in her memoir that she often felt like “a young damsel of olden time, shut up within an enchanted castle. And I must say my dear father, for all his noble generosity and overweening affection, sometimes appeared to me as my jailor.” Samuel Ward was a man of strict Calvinist convictions, which Julia gladly shed, becoming a Unitarian. Samuel Ward died in 1839.
In 1841 Julia was visiting in Dorchester, Mass., when her friends, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and abolitionist Charles Sumner, suggested that they drive out to the Perkins School for the Blind to see the great work being done there by Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe. Howe was well-known as a champion of education for the blind, deaf, and those in prisons. Howe wasn’t there when they arrived, but he soon came galloping up on his black horse. Julia was immediately impressed: “I looked out and beheld a noble rider on a noble steed.” Howe was indeed a glamourous and accomplished man. Soon after Harvard Medical School Howe had gone off to fight in the Greek War for Independence, a gesture of Byronic heroism for which the king of Greece made him Chevalier of the Order of St. Savior. His nickname thereafter was Chev. An abolitionist, Chev would become one of the “Secret Six,” who financed John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Howe was eighteen years Julia’s senior.
They were married in 1843. It was a miserable marriage. Howe was a dictatorial man who expected his wife to devote herself entirely to him and their six children. He disapproved of her literary ambitions. “I have been married 22 years today,” she wrote on her anniversary in 1865. “In the course of this time I have never known my husband to approve of any act of mine which I myself valued. Books — poems — essays — everything has been contemptible or contraband in his eyes.” It probably didn’t help that Howe managed to lose Julia’s fortune through a series of bad investments. Nor was Howe happy. He asked for a legal separation at one point, but Julia refused.
One thing the mismatched couple could support together was work for the abolition of slavery. The Howes went to the White House to meet Abraham Lincoln in 1861 and afterwards paid a visit to Union soldiers, encamped in Virginia. When they heard soldiers singing the rowdy “John Brown’s Body,” a minister in the company suggested that Julia write more dignified words for the song.
One thing the mismatched couple could support together was work for the abolition of slavery.
Julia Ward Howe returned to her room in Washington’s Willard Hotel and the next morning wrote the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “I went to bed that night as usual,” she recalled, “and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, ‘I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.’” Union soldiers adopted the song, and Howe became famous.
Howe became interested in women’s suffrage, an idea she formerly had ridiculed, according to a biography by her daughters, after the Civil War. She was asked to lend her famous name to the “call” for a suffragist gathering and, when the day came, planned to slip in and observe unnoticed. But the famous author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was called to join the dignitaries on stage, among them the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and others already friends of the Howes.
It was a turning point. Her daughters describe it: “These men and women had been the champions of the slave. They now asked for wives and mothers those civil rights which had been given to the negro; ‘that impartial justice for which, if for anything, a Republican Government should stand.’ Their speech was earnest; [Julia Ward Howe] listened as to a new gospel. When she was asked to speak, she could only say, ‘I am with you.’”
And, indeed, she was with them for the rest of her life. “During the first two thirds of my life,” she would recall, “I looked to the masculine idea of character as the only true one. I sought inspiration, its inspiration, and referred my merits and demerits to its judicial verdict . . . The new domain now made clear to me that of true womanhood—woman no longer in her ancillary relation to her opposite, man, but in her direct relation to the divine plan and purpose, as a free agent, fully sharing with man every human right, and every human responsibility. This discovery was like the addition of a new continent to the map of the world.”
Howe met Lucy Stone at the first gathering, and she was forever afterwards to ally herself with Stone instead of the more radical Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The two factions had different ways of approaching women. Even the names of their publications indicated these differences. The Women’s Journal, the magazine of the Stone-Howe group, had a broader, more mainstream audience than The Revolution, the more overtly politicized newspaper of the Stanton-Anthony faction. The Women’s Journal featured news about debates and conventions but also carried lighter fare such as poems and short stories and even a column called “Gossips and Gleanings.” Howe served as primary editor until 1893.
Howe founded the New England Woman Suffrage Association, whose sole purpose was obtaining the vote for women. It remained in existence until the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified in 1920. In 1889 the rift between the Stone-Howe and Stanton-Anthony wing of the suffrage movement was healed and they came together to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Elizabeth Cady Stanton was elected the first president.
The two factions had different ways of approaching women.
In addition to working for women’s suffrage, the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” became active in the cause of pacifism. In 1870, she wrote a Mother’s Day Proclamation for Peace in which she urged mothers to stop war. It might be described as a militant cry for peace: “Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears!… We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says ‘Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.’” Howe’s proclamation is considered a precursor to the establishment of Mother’s Day as a holiday.
Samuel Gridley Howe died in 1876. On the day after his funeral, Julia Ward Howe wrote in her diary: “Began my new life today.” She did write a flattering biography of her late husband, and then she went on to have quite a life. She lectured, often on behalf of the Unitarian Church, and was widely published. Howe was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Julia Ward Howe died in 1910 at the age of 91. Known as “the Dearest Old Lady in America” at the time of her death, Julia Ward Howe had provided the suffrage movement an alternative to the more radical element that developed in the fight over the Fifteenth Amendment and was therefore instrumental in the eventual passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.