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Her Truth is Marching On

Happy National Women’s History Month! I’m writing this article on March 8, which is celebrated by men and women around the world as International Women’s Day, or IWD. March has been officially designated as National Women’s History Month since 1987 in the United States, but IWD has been celebrated since 1911 and can trace its roots back to political action by women in New York in 1908. According to internationalwomensday.com, “International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.” IWD is not as well-known in the United States. However, it is an official holiday in other countries, with men and boys honoring their wives, mothers, sisters, colleagues, etc. with flowers and small gifts. In some places, the day is treated as the equivalent to Mother’s Day.

No single organization is responsible for overseeing IWD celebrations and activities, but instead groups in different countries coordinate their efforts to push for similar causes. Political action and popularity of IWD has waxed and waned with the feminist movement, and is currently seeing a resurgence in activity, most likely influenced by the recent Women’s March and #MeToo movements.

What has put women’s history on my mind? Calendar of global and national events aside, I was recently asked to be a reader and reviewer for a prestigious award for local authors, the Julia Ward Howe Award. Awards are given in the categories of Fiction, Nonfiction (the category for which I’m reading), Poetry, and Young Readers, by the Boston Authors Club. The award is named for the club’s first president.

The Boston Authors Club was unique in its time in that both women and men were members. In 1886, a group of men authors in Boston discussed forming such a club, but were unable to agree about the inclusion of women, and efforts to form the club dissolved. In 1899, several women authors met to discuss the idea of an author’s club in Boston. They agreed that it was a splendid plan and approached some of their male colleagues to join them. Soon, the Boston Authors Club was formed and Julia Ward Howe was elected the first president.

You almost certainly know of Julia Ward Howe’s work, even if you didn’t realize it. She wrote the poem, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which was then set to the music of “John Brown’s Body” composed by William Steffe. The song “John Brown’s Body” was popularized as the Union Army’s marching song in the American Civil War, and today “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a national anthem, of sorts. Her publication of “Battle Hymn” in 1861 brought her immediate celebrity, and she became one of the most famous women in 19th century America.

Howe was a writer of fiction, travel and children’s books, poetry, plays, essays, and articles. She was born to privilege in New York City in 1819 and married young. A series of poor business decisions by her husband and male family members lost most of her wealth, though, and as a widow she worked to earn a meager living. Howe had seven children and was instrumental in the creation of Mother’s Day.

The women’s suffrage movement was Howe’s biggest consideration, and she worked tirelessly writing, lobbying, and editing  journals and magazines to spread information and promote her causes. She was also an abolitionist  and social and human rights activist, worked to promote world peace, and was at the forefront of gender and sexual politics. In short, Julia Ward Howe was a strong feminist activist before feminism was even a widely used term.

Howe was an ambitious, outspoken, fiery poet, but was ahead of her time in the 1800s. Her husband was autocratic and patriarchal, and was dismayed to find he hadn’t married a demure, decorous wife. He threatened to leave Julia and take their children after she anonymously published a volume of poems called “Passion Flowers” which alluded to intimate personal details of their married life. Julia continued her activist work but scaled back certain aspects, and today is best remembered for “Battle Hymn”

Boston has always been a literary firebrand of a city, and we can proudly claim Julia Ward Howe as one of our foremothers. To learn more about Howe’s fascinating life and work, visit the library to check out “The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe,” by Elaine Showalter, or “The Vintage Book of American Women Writers,” edited by Elaine Showalter.

Liz Reed is an Adult and Information Services Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Liz’s column in the March 15, 2018 issue of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Lydia Sampson

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