Before Sarah Palin, there was Sarah Hale, who spent 40 years and wrote thousands of letters to make Thanksgiving a national holiday
I know many of us are convinced that only today could a woman over 40 reinvent herself and become a big nationwide success. But it isn’t so. And since it is Thanksgiving week I want to tell you about a forgotten but extraordinary Victorian woman named Sarah Hale.
Born in 1788, she was left a widow at 34. Penniless, she had five children to raise and so she supported them by sewing and writing poetry. At 39 she wrote a novel called Norwood, the first novel about slavery that was a big bestseller. She then became the editor of the Ladies’ Magazine in Boston and wrote successful collections of poetry, called Poems for Our Children, which included the poem “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”
Some S.I. Newhouse of the day lured her to Philadelphia to a bigger and better job on a magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book which was the largest and most successful publication in its day. It may be the fashion to sneer at women’s magazines and women magazine editors these days but Sarah at that time, through her publication’s pages, became the most influential woman in America. She was the first to advocate equal education for girls, start day nurseries for working women and suggest public playgrounds. She also supported American women writers and published them in her magazine. And the S.I. Newhouse of the day supported her. She remained the editor until she was 90.
Pretty impressive, right? But what she is remembered for, when she is remembered, is her promoting Thanksgiving as a national holiday. It was her idea. She wrote, “We have too few holidays. Thanksgiving, like the Fourth of July, should be a national festival and observed by all people.” She thought such a holiday would have a positive effect on our country. She wrote, “There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which whole communities participate. They bring out … the best sympathies in our natures.”
As the nation hurtled toward the Civil War, she felt such a holiday was especially important. In 1863, in the darkest year of the conflict, Lincoln did issue the proclamation that established Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Sarah had spent 40 years and written thousands of letters to achieve this goal. It is interesting in these troubled times to read Lincoln’s proclamation (www.historyplace.com). In, perhaps, our country’s darkest hour he still wrote of the blessings and the bounty of America.
Yes, the middle-aged Sarah Hale — tough, smart, determined — was quite a woman. Maybe she proves that women today are not different than American women in the past. But, rather, we are lucky to be their descendants.
Editor’s Note: Anyone who has read a women’s magazine in the last 25 years has most likely read the work of Myrna Blyth. Myrna is the founding editor of More magazine, was the longtime editor-in-chief of Ladies’ Home Journal, and was senior editor for Family Circle magazine. She is the chairman of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. She has received many awards including the Matrix Award from New York Women in Communications, Inc., the Woman of Achievement Award from the New York City Commission on the Status of Women, and was named Publishing Executive of the Year by Advertising Age. Currently she writes for The National Review Online.