After the Revolution Women Started Writing

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In the years following the war, more than a few American women found themselves speaking out in print in the nation’s growing number of newspapers and magazines.

During colonial times the women who helped shape the new profession of journalism were usually part of its production team — its typesetters, printers and publishers; like all printers of the time, they wrote stories too, when necessary.

But after the revolution, some women started to create a new role for themselves. Rather than publishers of a product, they became the actual writers of it. These new influential females in journalism were just beginning to discover their own voices. And the thoughts, opinions and ideas that they expressed in print were uniquely their own.

Popular Judith Sargent Murray’s Voice was Primarily an Intellectual One

Judith Sargent Murray was perhaps not the most typical of the new American woman. She was, after all, born into a well-to-do shipping family, lived in an impressive home (which exists today as, The Sargent House Museum), and enjoyed, at least on the surface, a “priviledged” life. But, it is said, she possessed a strong inclination to identify closely with wives and mothers everywhere, and an ability to think and write with great insight.

Judith Murray was married at 18, widowed young, and remarried when she was 37. Neither of her two husbands was financially secure and she began to help augment the family income in 1784, a year after the American Revolution, when the brand new Gentleman and Lady’s Town and Country Magazine asked for submissions from women writers.

The piece she wrote in 1784 is today described as a feminist one. “Desultory Thoughts Upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms,” suggested that females, as much as males should be encouraged to be self-sufficient and independent.

Murray would go on to write in different genres — poetry plays and essays — and on many subjects including philosopohy, politics, and ethics. She would write in magazines and publish a book of her essays and her husband, John Murray’s biography.

According to biographical information at the National Women’s HIstory Museum website her writing was well-received by her readers, even when controversial. Her strong desire for “women’s progress” that she expressed in her first published piece was a theme she would return to throughout her years. That women should achieve independence was indeed a radical idea at that time, but Murray would never shy away from her strong belief that girls should receive better educations, and other aspects of that philosophy which inc luded:

  • Her strong belief, refuting the opinion of her time, that men and women were intellectual equals
  • An assertion that females merely appeared to be inferior due to a lack of education
  • A claim that housework and kitchen duties would never provide enough intellectual stimulation for women
  • Her belief that girls possessed both a strong wish and a need to be educated
  • And further, that girls should be encouraged to be useful and achieve independence

On the other side of the desk, so to speak, sat an editor — a younger woman — whose ideas were in some ways at odds with those of Murray.

Sarah Josepha Hale’s Long and Successful Editing Career

Like Murray, Sarah Josepha Hale, turned to journalism for financial support, and also like Murray she strongly supported the cause for better education for females. But then Mrs. Hale drew a line: she was a supporter of existing social standards and she insisted that women “abstain” from the masculine realm. Politics, govenment and business would “corrupt women’s moral sensibility.”

Although she would grow more supportive of women’s progress over her long career, Sarah Hale would always believe — as many people of her era did — that women were “more pious and pure than men” and that their primary place was in the home.

Hale’s own exit from the home and into the business world was a case of absolutely necessity: when her huband, David Hale, died in 1822 she was left alone with five children to raise and support. Her career began with the publication of a book of poetry, and then a novel. When she was invited to be the editor of a new magazine for women in Boston in 1827 she moved her family there from New Hampshire. In 1836 they moved again — to Philadelphia, where she became the editor for the Godey’s Lady Book. It is said that she made Godey’s the “leading American women’s literary and fashion periodical for the following four decades.”

It is estimated that Hale wrote about half of the magazine herself. She continued to publish many novels and she involved herself in much advocacy and charity work. She continues to influence American life today in two particular ways that surely most people do not realize. For one, she composed the extremely popular nursery rhyme Mary had a Little Lamb. She also lobbied for years to establish a national day of thanks.

Hale and her family had always celebrated a Thanksgiving Day. They were New England residents and the feast had been observed there since the 17th century. She wanted the entire country to observe it. She wrote editorials and lobbied several U. S. Presidents to nationalize the observance of Thanksgiving, and her efforts finally paid off when, in 1863, President Lincoln issued a proclamation creating the national holiday.