An avid young reader who had never come across a book written by a woman, Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879) was inspired from an early age to “promote the reputation of my own sex, and do something for my own country.” And so she did.
A staunch advocate for women’s education and economic independence, Sarah became a pioneering editor and prolific writer who published nearly fifty volumes of work – novels, short stories, cookbooks, poems – throughout her life, one of which included her most famous nursery rhyme, ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ (1830). She’s also known as the “Godmother of Thanksgiving” for her tireless campaign to establish the day as a national holiday in America.
Sarah’s “predilection for literary pursuits” became the vehicle through which she advocated for women. In 1828, she took the helm at Ladies’ Magazine of Boston, the first magazine edited for women by a woman. Nine years later, it merged with Lady’s Book, a journal published in Philadelphia by Louis Godey, becoming Godey’s Lady’s Book. That’s where Sarah took on her preferred title of “Editress”, which she held for forty years, until her retirement in 1877 at age 89. In that time, she made Godey’s Lady’s Book one of the most-read women’s magazines of the 19th century.
Through the pages of her influential editorial platform, Sarah was the arbiter of womanhood as she defined it. Among the hand-colored fashion plates, household tips, recipes, and moral stories that peppered Godey’s Lady’s Book, she wrote of the importance of girls’ and women’s education, argued for “property rights for married women and improvements in women’s wages”, and published works from women contributors. But, interestingly, Sarah also believed in gender roles – men do this, women do that – and was opposed to women’s suffrage (voting fell into her man sphere because 1. politics would apparently corrupt women’s moral compasses and 2. it would lessen their influence at home).
It was Sarah’s reverence for the domestic arts that brings us to how she became known as the “Godmother of Thanksgiving”. Thanksgiving had been celebrated in the U.S. since the 1600s, but not in all States and with no set date. Sarah set out to change this. So in her first year running Godey’s Lady’s Book, Sarah wrote the first of her Thanksgiving editorials, “praising the holiday for its domestic and moral influence.”
“…might, without inconvenience, be observed on the same day of November, say the last Thursday in the month, throughout all New England; and also in our sister states, who have engrafted it upon their social system. It would then have a national character, which would, eventually, induce all the states to join in the commemoration of ‘Ingathering,’ which it celebrates. It is a festival which will never become obsolete, for it cherishes the best affections of the heart – the social and domestic ties. It calls together the dispersed members of the family circle, and brings plenty, joy and gladness to the dwellings of the poor and lowly.”
This kicked off her nearly 26-year long, one-woman crusade to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. In addition to using the pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book to campaign, Sarah also wrote letters to any and every politician she could reach, and lobbied no fewer than four U.S. presidents.
Finally, on October 3, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation making the last Thursday in November Thanksgiving Day.
Lead image: Sarah Josepha Hale, circa 1831, painted by James Reid Lambdin – public domain