Although she has been called a “proto-feminist,” Sarah Josepha Hale—editor of the most widely circulated magazine in antebellum America, promoter of female writers, and influential advocate for women’s education—never quite made it into the pantheon of feminist leaders. She was a feminist, though, with perhaps with some distinct views of her own on the role of women in society, right?
“Absolutely,” replies Melanie Kirkpatrick, the former Wall Street Journal writer and editor. Kirkpatrick is author of a splendid book about Hale’s life: “Lady Editor: Sarah Josepha Hale and the Making of the Modern American Woman.” Hale is remembered, if at all today, as the author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had Little Lamb.” She deserves more.
“I’m reluctant to comment on the traditional feminists because that wasn’t the subject of my book,” Kirkpatrick continues. “But let me give you a little background that could be helpful. First, I think it’s important to note that 20 years before the famous women’s-rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, Sarah Josepha Hale was writing, and I will say evangelizing, for greater opportunities for women. In particular, she was tremendously influential in the area of promoting women’s education.
“When she began her editorial career in 1828, there was no institute of higher education that admitted women. She believed that women had an obligation to use their talents for the good of society, and she supported women working as teachers, professors, doctors, and numerous other occupations that weren’t open to them at the time. At the same time, she also thought that women’s first duty and highest achievement was in the home, bringing up the next generation and supporting her family.
“In 1828, the prevailing view was that women did not have the same intellectual capabilities as men. Hale strongly disagreed and this was a theme of her early writing—that men and women were intellectually equal. Her advocacy helped change the national conversation on what women were capable of.”
Sarah Josepha Hale, whom Kirpatrick’s book is bringing back from undeserved obscurity, is a classic American tale of triumph in spite of tremendous hardship.
Biographer and subject are beautifully matched. Kirkpatrick, who is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, had a distinguished career at the Wall Street Journal and served as a thought leader of her era. Kirkpatrick grew up in Buffalo, New York, where her father sold Coronet Educational Films. “I don’t know if you remember Coronet Films that kids used to watch in classrooms in the ‘50s and ‘60s but that is what my parents did. My mother worked from home. She kept the books and handled the administrative work, and my father was in the office and traveling, a traveling salesman selling his educational film libraries.”
Melanie graduated from a public high school and enrolled at Smith College and then transferred to Princeton University. “I wrote my thesis on children and Dickens’ novels,” she recalls. “I went on to graduate school at the University of Toronto because I thought I wanted to be a professor of English. I have to say that year at the University of Toronto was really the only period in my life when I was unhappy. I knew that I had lost my way. I decided that graduate school wasn’t for me.
“I wanted to spend my life out in the world, not in the library, and so off I went to Princeton in Asia, which was a program for graduates of Princeton, and now graduates of other colleges as well, that placed them in jobs or internships in Asia. I was introduced to a subsidiary of Time Life Books in Tokyo and spent three years there. I also moonlighted as co-host of a children’s show on NHK-TV.” Kirkpatrick launched her journalism career after she returned to Buffalo.
“The editor who hired me was one of those hard-bitten, rough talking guys that you would see in movies from the 1930s about newspapers,” Kirkpatrick recalls. “He said to me, ‘You don’t have the personality to be a reporter, but you’ve had a pretty good education.”
“I was fortunate in finding a job working at the Buffalo Courier-Express, now defunct,” she recalls. “The editor who hired me was one of those hard-bitten, rough talking guys that you would see in movies from the 1930s about newspapers. He said to me, ‘You don’t have the personality to be a reporter, but you’ve had a pretty good education. So, maybe you could be a copy editor. I’ll give you an internship.’ So, he gave me an internship for three months and then a second three months, after which he told me that ‘the union won’t let me give you another internship so I guess I’m going to have to give you a job.’ I was the first woman to work on the copy desk there.
“That was a great experience in learning how newspapers work and how to write good journalism. Then I received a fellowship to go to the University of Hawaii for journalists to study Asia for a year, and the fellowship included a trip to Asia. By then it was 1980 and China had opened. So, I went to China, and it was fascinating to travel around to many places I’d read about and studied.” Kirkpatrick was hired as a copy editor working on the overnight desk for the Wall Street Journal’s Hong Kong office in 1980. She lived six years in Hong Kong working for The Wall Street Journal Asia. In New York, she became the global newspaper’s op-ed editor, a member of the editorial board, and deputy editor of the newspaper’s editorial pages.
Sarah Josepha Hale would appreciate Kirkpatrick’s stellar career in journalism–though like Kirkpatrick, she might have been discouraged by the state of journalism itself. In addition to her work at the Wall Street Journal, Kirkpatrick is author of “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad.” The book consists of harrowing sketches of fugitives who have managed to flee from the Hermit Kingdom with the help of South Korean and American humanitarians. (It is illegal to leave North Korea without official permission.) Kirkpatrick also was a co-editor (with the Wall Street Journal’s legendary editor Robert Bartley) of a Journal series called “Whitewater,” six volumes dealing with the Clinton scandals.
Hale and Kirkpatrick met, you might say, because each had a great interest in the great American celebration of Thanksgiving.
“I’ll comment on the general tenor of our times,” she replies, “which I think has deteriorated since the 1990s and the Clinton era. That includes journalism, especially the unwillingness of so many media organizations to focus on facts as opposed to personal opinions. The good news is that Americans are fortunate in that we have more sources of information than ever before. The bad news is that no individual has time to research everything that he’s interested in. We need more trustworthy editors and media organizations that will curate the information for us in a helpful way. It’s all very distressing to me, as someone who has devoted her career to journalism. Of course, our politics has also deteriorated in a very significant way; the culture of compromise is gone. Still, I’m a hopeful person by nature and I’m optimistic about the up-and-coming generation of journalists and politicians in our country.”
Melanie Kirkpatrick today lives in rural Connecticut with her husband Jack David, who is a trustee and senior fellow of trustee of the Hudson Institute, where his expertise is national security. They entertain his grandchildren in the summer at what the children call “Camp David.” She also grows tomatoes, apples, and other produce, which she and her husband delight in sharing with friends. Kirkpatrick now devotes her time to writing and studying, including her most recent subject, Sarah Josepha Hale. She wrote Lady Editor during the Covid pandemic lockdown, working from her desk overlooking a little lake.
Sarah Josepha Hale, whom Kirpatrick’s book is bringing back from undeserved obscurity, is a classic American tale of triumph in spite of tremendous hardship. Sarah Josepha Buell was born in 1788 on her family’s farm in central New Hampshire. She wrote that the key influences in her childhood were her parents’ love of learning and her own religious faith. She was an avid reader who early on tried her hand at writing.
In 1813 Sarah married David Hale, a young lawyer. The Hales were serious about intellectual pursuits. They established a routine of sitting together from 8 o’clock in the evening until 10 reading the classics. David encouraged her to write. “This was a match made in heaven, a companionable union of intellectual equals,” writes Kirkpatrick.
The idyll came to an abrupt end when David was caught in a freak snowstorm and subsequently came down with pneumonia. He died a few days later. Sarah found herself a widow at the age of 33. She now had five children to support (the fifth was born after David Hale’s death). Penniless and in debt, Hale set up as a milliner, but she also concentrated on her writing. She published poetry and a novel, “Northwood: A Tale of New England,” which told of a young New Englander who went South and for the first time witnessed slavery.
“Hale may have been the first American writer to set a novel against the backdrop of slavery,” Kirkpatrick notes. Hale’s published works brought her to the attention of the Reverend John Lauris Blake, an Episcopal minister, who wanted to start a magazine. Blake offered Hale the editorship, and she accepted, saying that the job would allow her to educate her children as her husband would have wanted.
The Ladies Magazine debuted in 1828. Hale edited the magazine from Boston, which was strategically located for the education of her children. The Ladies Magazine– which later was subsumed into Godey’s Lady’s Book– was a reflection of its editor’s tastes and beliefs. Hale pushed for the education of women, the founding of institutions of higher learning for women (she would later be allied with Matthew Vassar in helping him create the college that bears his name), and urged women to study such hitherto off-limits topics as chemistry, biology, physics and mineralogy—what we might now call STEM studies. She lobbied for property rights for women.
She sounds like she should have made it into the traditional feminist canon, doesn’t she? Hale was too much of an individual.
As Kirkpatrick describes in “Lady Editor,” Hale entertained some beliefs that would not have endeared her to today’s movement feminism. For example, she believed in the “moral superiority” of women and did not want women to get involved in the gritty world of politics. She was not in favor of women having the vote (though it should be noted that the belief in woman’s suffrage was not as popular in Hale’s day as it became). She coined the term “domestic science” and believed in the centrality of marriage and the family. This did not mean she did not approve of women taking jobs. Quite the contrary, she believed that women should acquire marketable skills, and she promoted certain professions as especially suitable for women. The teaching profession, for example, was largely male until Hale came along and mounted a campaign for women teachers. Hale had good taste in writing and in addition to promoting women writers, she also had the editorial judgment to support the work of Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and many other now-famous writers.
Hale and Kirkpatrick met, you might say, because each had a great interest in the great American celebration of Thanksgiving.
When Kirkpatrick was researching her 2016 book “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience,” she came across another woman writer who also had a thing about Thanksgiving: Sarah Josepha Hale. It was Hale, she learned, who encouraged Lincoln to declare in 1863 the first in our modern series of Thanksgiving Days. Starting in the 1840s, she promoted her idea in Godey’s Lady’s Book, and she wrote letters to Presidents, governors, members of Congress and other opinion makers requesting their support for a national Thanksgiving Day. “Hale believed that a national celebration would bring Americans together in a positive way,” Kirkpatrick explains. “In addition to writing editorials about Thanksgiving, she inserted Thanksgiving into short stories, and she published Thanksgiving recipes in, the magazine. She was the first editor to publish a recipe section by the way, which is kind of mind boggling to think that magazines didn’t have recipe sections before her.
“As the country moved closer to war, Hale accelerated this Thanksgiving campaign and wrote about how if only we could come together and give thanks as a nation, it would help to prevent war. As we know, that didn’t happen. But Godey’s Lady’s Book was at the height of its power then and about a third of its circulation was in the South, in the era just before the Civil War. So, she was speaking not just to Northerners, she was also speaking to Southerners,” Kirkpatrick says.
Hale has been dubbed the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.” One can imagine Hale’s pleasure if she could read Kirkpatrick’s book, which contains a fun appendix of historic Thanksgiving recipes – of “receipts,” as Hale called them.
We are fortunate that Melanie Kirkpatrick has the heart, vision and literary skills to rescue Sarah Josepha Hale from unwarranted obscurity. Next Thanksgiving, raise a cup of cheer to these two brilliant and original lady journalists!