Lady Editor: Excerpt

From the Introduction: A Summer Snowstorm

Education for women was [Sarah Josepha Hale’s] paramount mission. “In this age of innovation,” she wrote in the first issue of the Ladies’ Magazine, “perhaps no experiment will have an influence more important on the character and happiness of our society than the granting to females the advantages of a systematic and thorough education.” The year was 1828, when only half of American women could read and there wasn’t a single institution of higher education that admitted women.

Over the next half century no issue of Hale’s magazines would go to press without at least one article hammering away at her revolutionary themes: Women are the intellectual equals of men. Women deserve to go to college. Women should be able to work for a living. Hale wasn’t the only reformer pressing for advancements in women’s roles in the first half of the nineteenth century, but she possessed something that her sister reformers lacked: an editorial megaphone.

The change in attitudes about educating women was one of the most rapid shifts in public opinion in American history. By the time of Hale’s retirement in 1877, educational opportunities for women had exploded. More girls than boys attended high school, 30 percent of colleges were coeducational, and several all-female colleges offered an education for young women competitive with that which the Ivy League provided for young men.

As women became educated, Hale used the pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book to champion their entry into the paid workforce. She believed that every woman should be able to support herself and her family should the need arise. This was a lesson she had learned the hard way when her husband died unexpectedly, leaving her with four small children and a fifth on the way. She fought for women to become public schoolteachers, nurses, typesetters, postmistresses, clerks, waitresses, professors, and other positions that heretofore had been held exclusively by the other sex. She published a monthly “Employment for Women” column in the Lady’s Book, describing the kinds of work that could be suitable for women. In one of her editorial essays promoting female physicians, she expressed the expectation that she soon would “see the day when authoritative women will go about with their pills, prescriptions, and so forth, to deal with and diminish the majority of diseases that visit our households.”

Above all, she was the champion of the majority of her readers, who were wives and mothers—roles she thought were underappreciated and undervalued. She created the term “domestic science” as part of her effort to professionalize household skills and raise the status of homemakers. She started the first day nursery to care for the children of poor working women. She supported the establishment of kindergartens. She helped launch the first public playground. She encouraged the acceptance of washing machines, sewing machines, and other labor-saving devices. Her philanthropic work became a model for how women could acquire leadership skills and deploy them in the service of their communities.