Who’s That Lady?

A few folks have asked me who that dour looking woman is here on this blog. She’s one of my personal heroes, Julia Ward Howe. The Indigo Girls (who I discovered at Girl Scout camp as a teenager) have a song called Virginia Woolf about becoming a friend of Woolf’s through the pages of her books. I feel that way about Julia Ward Howe. I think if she was alive today, she and I would have a laugh and a cry together about motherhood and writing and balancing family and work. That is to say, I think she’s one of us, and I’d like to introduce you all to her, Drunk History style, except I happen to be sober right now (alas).

Julia (we’re old friends, so I am allowed to call her by her first name) was born in 1819 into an affluent family in New York. Her mom died when she was very young, and so she was raised by her extremely overbearing dad who didn’t let her go to parties or meet people. She was a total brainiac, and read EVERYTHING, and was super serious about learning and writing, even as a child. Eventually her dad died, which meant she was free to go out and meet people and find herself a husband. And she did: Samuel Gridley Howe, a social reformer who ran a school for the blind outside of Boston. Everyone called him The Chevalier, or Chev for short, even Julia.

Now, the problem with fairy tales is that they end with the happy couple getting married, and they don’t show what happens AFTER the honeymoon. In real life, a lot of people don’t live happily ever after, and in Julia’s case, man, was there a lot of drama in that marriage. It turned out she had married a guy as overbearing as her father, who didn’t want her to have any kind of public life or be a writer–he wanted her to only run the household, and be completely dedicated to their children, and that’s it, nothing else. This was Cult of True Womanhood time, and Chev wanted his wife to be a True Woman all the way. Living so far outside Boston, she rarely got to hang out with friends or go out to dinner or the opera or do much of anything, other than run her household and watch her children. It didn’t take long for her to get really sick of having no outlet for that giant brain of hers.

So she started writing poetry about how shitty it was being stuck out in the country with a bunch of little kids and no adults to talk to but her overbearing husband. And THEN she got the poetry published, anonymously but EVERYONE knew it was her. Chev was super embarrassed, AND pissed, and he told her to stop writing. And she told him she’d be more domestic and compliant, but she was like, “Whatever, I am going to keep on writing, good luck trying to stop me.” And she wrote more angsty poetry that she had published that pissed Chev off and he yelled at her some more. And she cried a lot and felt hurt and frustrated, because it’s not easy being a writer in 1850 when your husband, who you love, wants you to have no life beyond raising your kids and running your household.

And then she wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and got suuuuuuuper famous, and she published more and made a lot of speeches and tried to change the world and get women the vote and stop war from happening. And Chev got more pissed, and sometimes her kids took Chev’s side and yelled at her too, and she still said, “Whatever, this is who I am, I can’t change who I am.” And she kept on writing and making speeches and just doing Julia as best she could. Then Chev died, and she didn’t have to balance pleasing her husband and being domestic, with writing and speaking and trying to change the world.

Julia is also famous for kind-of inventing Mother’s Day. But not like Mother’s Day that we celebrate today. She wanted moms to take a day away from their regular domestic chores to come together to talk about how to make the world a better place for their children. She was an idealist, and believed in the power of motherhood to work as a positive force in the world, that moms working together could make the world a better place. I believe that too.

Reading Julia’s letters and poems, what strikes me is how honest she was about how she felt and what was happening in her life, AND how relevant her writings still are 150 years later. I know so many women who struggle with being their own person and also being a good mom. They feel guilty for taking time away from their children to have a career or even hobbies or other activities that aren’t directly related to their children. Being a parent DOES mean making choices and doing stuff you’d rather not. But if they give up those outside activities, then they feel bored, or worse, like they have lost who they are. As Julia said, “In giving life to others, do we lose our own vitality and sink into dimness, nothingness, a living death?”

Julia didn’t find escaping the Cult of True Womanhood any easier than it is for us to escape the Cult of Perfect Motherhood today. It came with tears and arguments and feeling like everyone around her was judging her for not being what the world told her she should be. But she fought against the cult anyway, and she found satisfaction in being both a mother AND a fully realized human being. She’s an inspiration to me and I wish I could have met her in person instead of through her writings. I like to think that wherever she is now, she’s reading this blog and saying “Rock on sister!”

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