The Secret Life of Julia Ward Howe
by Robin Proud
Prairie UU Society
presented on May 18, 2014

The two things that most people know about Julia Ward Howe are that she wrote the lyrics for The Battle Hymn of the Republic and that she initiated the first Mothers' Day. From these two achievements, you might assume that she was a typical example of 19th -century propriety, that she was conventional, patriotic, supportive of military endeavors, devoted to the domestic sphere of the family, putting her husband and children's needs above her own. You might assume those things but you would be wrong. Julia Ward Howe was a radical, freethinking, creative individual who struggled her whole life against restraints - first of her strict father, then of her demanding husband, and finally of society at large.

Julia's background was quite different from other women I have researched. I have spoken about at least 6 other women in my series I jokingly call “Famous UU women we've never heard of” or in this case “barely heard of”. For all the others, Margaret Fuller, the Peabody sisters, Harriet Martineau, Lydia Maria Child, Louisa May Alcott, they were forced into careers of writing, teaching or speaking in order to support themselves and their families. They came from families without wealth and often had male relatives without ambition. Most remained single and in one case, Lydia Maria Child, marriage did not help her finances since her husband constantly lost money in foolhardy ventures, to the point where she had to assign a male friend as guardian of her money. But Julia's case was different.

Julia was a society girl, born in 1819 to a wealthy and well-connected New York family. On her father's side she was descended from Roger Williams and her mother was the great grand-niece of Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion (known as the Swamp Fox). One of her brothers was to marry into the Astor family. Her father, Samuel Ward, was a successful Wall Street banker. Her mother, who was also named Julia, had published poetry, which is interesting in light of daughter Julia's later aspirations. However the mother died in childbirth when young Julia was only 5 years old.

Her father who had already been rather conservative in his Christian views became more so, forbidding his daughter to attend theater or opera, secluding her at home (although her older brothers were allowed to go out into society), and emphasizing the seriousness of her position as Miss Ward, the eldest daughter - to the point of taking away her dolls at age 9. The pastimes allowed to her were reading, writing and studying, which she did earnestly, learning French and German and practicing music. To keep herself on task she would have herself tied to a chair and give orders that she was not to be freed until the time she had set for her work was up. This was not really a hardship for her. Her daughter later wrote “...from her earliest childhood Julia Ward's need of expressing herself in verse was imperative. Every emotion, must take metrical shape. She herself wrote that she had a “vision of some great work which I myself should give the world. I would write the novel or play of the age” This despite the fact that woman authors were rare at the time.

Her father's caprices included emptying his wine cellar and forbidding alcohol and cigars to his grown sons, and suddenly deciding that Julia needed to learn housekeeping and cookery. At her brother's wedding to Emily Astor, her father forced her to go home before the dancing.

But when Julia was 20 and her father died after a short illness, followed by the death of a brother, instead of seizing her freedom, she retreated into her father's strict principles. Her brothers changed her nickname from Jolie Julie to Old Bird, which they called her for the rest of her life. This was her chance for a bit of freedom, as her uncle, who moved into the house as guardian, had more relaxed standards. But at first Julia buried herself in abstention, forbidding cooking on Sundays and admonishing her family. She also observed the full 2 year period of mourning expected at the time. During that period her readings in the varied collection of books her brothers owned led her to a more loving view of God and a more liberal view of herself. And when it was time for her to enter society, she did so with pleasure and to great acclaim. She and her younger sisters, Annie and Louisa, were called The Three Graces of Bond Street and Julia was acknowledged as the most beautiful of all. Her brother Sam introduced her to the cream of society in New York and Boston. In 1841 she visited the Perkins Institution run by Samuel Gridley Howe.

Howe was a glamorous figure for several reasons. After receiving a medical degree from Harvard, he volunteered as a surgeon in the Greek war of independence. This put him on par with the famous Lord Byron, and apparently he had the looks to match, being famed for his black hair, blue eyes and excellent figure on horseback. Because of this image and a recognition he had received in Greece, his friends called him Chevalier or Chev for short, and this was the name by which Julia called him. On his return, he began to work with the blind, who at the time were generally considered feeble-minded. Working without pay, although he was not wealthy himself, he gradually built up the school and pioneered educational methods. He taught a girl named Laura Bridgman, who was blind and deaf, with the finger-spelling method that was later to revolutionize the life of Helen Keller.

Howe found Julia fascinating and within a year they were engaged. There were some warning signs in this match. Howe was 18 years older than Julia (was she trying to replace her lost father and brother? She hadn't spent much time with men her own age.) He was a demanding man, running his Institute with personal attention to every detail. He resented Julia's money and insisted that he take control of it. And he was adamant that a woman's place was in the home. He admired her poetry but assumed she would never publish or speak in public. He wrote her enthusiastic love letters but one has a foreboding tone:

“I give you fair warning; I shall not help you out of the cocoon state at all, you are a sweet, pretty, little mortal & shall not be immortal if I can help it, this many a long year. I suppose you think you would look very beautifully emerging from the chrysalis state & I should be proud to see a pair of wings sprouting out from your white shoulders...but no such thing & I advise you not to show even a feather, for I shall unmercifully cut them off, to keep you prisoner in my arms, my own dear earthly wife, who is to go forth with me through this pleasant world.” It could be that Julia and Chev thought, like many of us, that the other person would mellow with time. He was sure that marriage and motherhood would tame her spirit. She thought that love and patience would wear down his resistance to her wishes. Unfortunately, they were both wrong.

Their marriage started well enough, with a trip to Europe accompanied by Julia's sister Annie and by another newlywed pair - Horace and Mary Peabody Mann. Julia's letters were happy at first, but her poetry from this time depicts sad and morbid images. In London, Chev's celebrity allowed them to meet Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens, among others. They moved on to Switzerland, Austria, and Italy, where their first child, a girl was born. Julia's letters from this time and the births of later children seem to show that she suffered from post-partum depression. In addition, she always feared childbirth, since that was what had caused the death of her own mother.

Chev saw only glory, writing to his friend Charles Sumner, “No true woman ever considered it a burden to bear an infant” and insisted his wife had been transformed. “Only a year ago, Julia was a New York she is a wife who lives only for her husband & a mother who would melt her very heart, were it needed, to give a drop of nourishment to her child” He also discoursed on how the pains of labor were “seeds of beautiful and ennobling affections”. His views reflected the Victorian ideal of the woman as domestic goddess within the sphere of the home. But Julia was never content with that sphere. And ironically, Chev was a persistent hypochondriac, whose mysterious symptoms demanded the attention of his already beleaguered wife

If they had lived in New York or Boston, Julia would have at least had a few outlets but in Chev's house at the institute, Julia was as isolated as she had been in her father's mansion. He worked long hours and expected her to be content with her private sphere. He was adamantly opposed to her publishing or having any outside role. She was still young and had barely begun to enjoy society. They were both strong personalities. She was called by her family “Diva Julia” and needed a lot of attention and emotional outlets, which Chev couldn't provide or even understand. Julia housekeeping skills were minimal and she also had little experience supervising servants, who came and went with discouraging frequency. Julia wrote to her sister Louisa in 1846, “My voice is frozen to silence, my poetry chained down by an icy bond of indifference.”

Julia's letters throughout her marriage reveal anger, bitterness, fear and guilt. She wanted to convince others and herself that she was happy, but she and Chev were caught in a constant cycle of argument, frustration, and misunderstanding. She wrote in another letter that men are foolish who “think a woman's happiness is ensured, when she becomes tied for life to one of them-God knows one's wedding day may be worse than the day of one's death-one's husband may prove anything but a comfort and support.”

She still hoped to change Chev. “He must learn to understand those things which have entirely formed my character - I have come to him, have left my poetry, my music, my religion, have walked with him in his cold world of actualities - there I have learned much, but there, I can do nothing - he must come to me, must have ears for my music, must have a soul for my faith-in my nature is to sing, to pray, to feel -his is to fight, to teach, to reason; but love and patience may bring us much nearer together than we are.”

For his part, Chev was only echoing the expectations of the time, when the woman was to create the perfect domestic sphere for the man to retire to after work, and for the children to be educated and formed. They had 4 children in 6 years, one 4 years later and the last 5 years after that, in 1859, when Julia was 40. Although her children, when grown, in writing a laudatory and prizewinning biography of their mother, avoided any mention of marital discord, they did confide “Before the birth of each successive child she was oppressed by a deep and persistent melancholy. Present and future alike seemed dark to her; she wept for herself, but still more for the hapless infant which must come to birth in so sorrowful a world”. Her daughters insisted that once the children were born, Julia was the doting mother. But her own correspondence betrays ambivalence at best.

Julia's children carefully groomed their domestic history for public consumption, dwelling on the wonderful times they had as a family, such as putting on plays, and on the devotion of their parents to social causes. Everyone hushed up the conflict and especially the fact that Julia and Chev separated for almost a year in 1850. Julia's sister Louisa had married a sculptor and was living in Rome. Chev took a six-month leave to accompany Julia on a visit there with their two youngest children, Harry and Laura, leaving the two older children, Julia Romana, and Florence, in the care of friends. Julia stayed on for most of a year. We know little about this time. Julia's usual correspondence was with her sister, so she had no need to write to her. Her letters to and from Chev were apparently so troubling that he asked her to burn them. There are indications that Chev was refusing to receive her at home, and also that she didn't wish to return. In the ensuing years, Chev repeatedly asked for a divorce, but he demanded to keep his two favorite children, Julia Romana and Harry, which their mother would never agree to. The Roman sojourn split the family, with Julia Romana and Florence (called Flossy) favoring their father, and Harry and Laura being very close to each other and taking their mother's part.

In December 1853, Julia published a book of poems entitled “Passion Flowers” without telling Chev. It was published anonymously but there were enough clues for readers in the Boston circles to identify its author. There were also a number of allusions to Julia's disappointments in marriage. Chev was furious. Julia wrote that he was “cold and indifferent” to her, although this did not stop him from again getting her with child. A public separation or a divorce would have been a huge scandal and neither was willing to give up any of the children.

Thwarted in her poetic endeavors, Julia threw herself into a cause she shared with Chev and most of their acquaintances, abolition. They were close friends of Charles Sumner and Chev may have been one of the “Secret Six” who financed John Brown. During the civil war they served on the Sanitary Commission, an entity greatly needed since more men died of infection and disease during the war than died directly from their wounds.

On a trip to Washington DC in this capacity, with their Unitarian minister, Rev. James Freeman Clarke, Julia and her companions sang some popular songs with the soldiers, including “John Brown's Body”. Clarke suggested that Julia write some more uplifting words for the tune. That night, she later recalled,

“I awoke in the gray of morning twilight, and the long lines of the desired poem began to form themselves in my mind.” She jumped out of bed and scrawled the verses on a random piece of paper. When she awoke, she could not remember the words, but there on the paper, she found six stanzas. She removed one but otherwise the song stands unchanged, as it was published two months later in The Atlantic Monthly. The song's biblical and apocalyptic imagery made it a perfect fit with the messianic mission that the North wanted its soldiers and civilians to support. Julia was instantly famous across the country. Even Chev could accept this sort of poetry.

Personal tragedy helped push Julia into the public. In May 1863, her young son Sammy died of diphtheria. Both parents were distraught but grieved in different ways. Chev refused to ride with the body to the funeral and found talk of him painful. Julia wanted to ride with her son's body, as a last opportunity to be with him and wished to speak of him constantly. Her only escape was in her studies and writing, especially when she had the opportunity to read her papers to audiences. Chev never approved and insisted she take no compensation.

In 1864, Julia traveled to Washington again, this time to deliver a series of lectures. Not only did Chev disapprove, but also their friend Charles Sumner, who told her no one in Washington wanted to hear her. Julia said “I go in obedience to a deep and strong impulse which I do not understand or explain, but whose bidding I cannot neglect. The satisfaction of having at last obeyed this interior guide is all that keeps me up, for no one, so far as I know, altogether approves my going.” Apparently the lectures were a success but on her return, Chev punished her by refusing to hear about the trip and stressing how much her absence had pained the family.

In November 1864 she was invited to New York to read a poem, in the company of Oliver Wendell Holmes and Ralph Waldo Emerson. She said “I read well” yet “Chev was much opposed to my going” and no one in the family celebrated “the greatest public honor of my life”. She recorded the experience in her diary for the sake of grandchildren she would have one day, in a more enlightened time.

With her children growing up and abandoning any hope of changing her husband's opinions, Julia formally joined the women's suffrage movement in 1868. Chev's complaints about the movement and the women in it sound a lot like what some of us heard in the 1970's. These women were out to subjugate men, abandon their children, and enjoy frivolous evenings together.

One area where Chev and Julia could still work together was for international peace. In 1870, as Europe was struggling through the Franco-Prussian war she called for mothers around the world to join in a “mighty and august congress”. She felt that all mothers are naturally supporters of peace, wanting to keep their children safe from being killed, or from killing others. The event, Mother's Day for Peace, never happened, and Mothers Day was later revived in a more domestic context.

As the 1870's progressed, Chev's health steadily declined (he had been born in 1801, 18 years before Julia). Shortly before his death in January 1876, he confessed to Julia that he, the champion of traditional domestic happiness, had been unfaithful to her, seemingly more than once. This fact, as well as most of the conflict between Julia and Chev, was kept secret throughout her life and even well after. Julia's daughters wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning biography of their mother, featuring a happy home with devoted and unified parents, and they burned letters and journals that did not support this happy view.

The day after Chev's death, Julia wrote in her journal “My new life begins today”. I'll just briefly mention the many projects Julia undertook in the later part of her life. Finally free to travel, write and speak as she desired, she lectured on a variety of subjects, using the fees to support herself. It turned out that her fortune had been mismanaged by Chev and by a male cousin. She preached regularly at Unitarian and Universalist churches. Beginning in 1873, she hosted an annual gathering of women ministers, and in the 1870s she helped found the Free Religious Association.

In 1879 she published in the North American Review a response to an earlier article by historian Francis Parkman opposing women's suffrage. Here are some excerpts

“The woman question, from the man's point of view, is very apt to be only the man question, after all. And the man, according to Mr. Parkman, questions thus: Do we wish our women to vote? If we do not, what arguments can we find against their voting? Starting from this point, with a zeal which can scarcely be mistaken for a candid spirit of inquiry, it is not surprising that very eloquent papers can be written. The white man reasoned on this wise against the political enfranchisement of the black man.”

She attacks his points one by one - “Those who vote already vote so badly. Why should we increase the number of fools who go to the polls?” The wise and the foolish are found in both sexes and all can benefit from education.

“A husband represents his wife” - “The slaveholder was formerly supposed, by a legal fiction, to represent his slaves” but “they will pursue personal advantage as it presents itself to them”.

“The best men shun politics as the realm of practiced tricksters and the best women will too” leaving only “coarse and contentious women” to vote. Julia says “It is a singular method of argument to adduce the imperfections of government as actually administered, as so many reasons why good women should be satisfied to keep aloof from participation in any attempt to make it better.”

She also points out that Mr. Parkman had obviously never spoken with members of the women's movement or attended any of their talks, since he accuse them of “frothy declamation” and sensational activities.

Julia goes on "Why should one sex assume to legislate for both? Because it has always done so? Because one sex has stronger muscles? It does not use these in the act of voting? Because one sex is military? Do the fighting men of a community rule? Because women have already possessed political power and have abused it? This argument can be used with triple force against the other sex, whose abuse of political power is in large proportion to their use of it."

She traveled to Europe and the Middle East, published a biography of Margaret Fuller, and in 1889 helped bring about the merger of the American Woman Suffrage Association with the rival organization led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, forming the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She was a founder of multiple women's organizations, including, in 1876, the Wisconsin Women's Club. She was editor and writer for the magazine Women's Journal for twenty years. She continued to write poetry and published her memoirs in1899.

In 1893, Julia, well known and sometimes called “The Queen of America” (and actually resembling a bit her contemporary Queen Victoria) participated in the Chicago Columbian Exposition (World's Fair). She spoke on “What is Religion?” and included the following:

“I think nothing is religion which puts one individual absolutely above others, and surely nothing is religion which puts one sex above another...any religion which will sacrifice a certain set of human beings for the enjoyment or aggrandizement or advantage of another is no religion. It is a thing which may be allowed, but it is against true religion. Any religion which sacrifices women to the brutality of men is no religion.”

When she died in 1910, 4000 people attended her memorial service, where Samuel G. Eliot, head of the American Unitarian Association, gave the eulogy.

Julia Ward Howe's public accomplishments are many and admirable, but what most inspires me about her is her determination to follow her passion and her gifts. She did this even when her family, husband and all of society not only failed to support her, but actively opposed her. She was always confident that the most important thing was to listen to that inner voice that compelled her to speak up and be heard.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,
His truth is marching on.

CHORUS: Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps,
His day is marching on.


He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His Judgement Seat.
Oh! Be swift, my soul, to answer Him, be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.


In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.