Despite running on the schmaltziest campaign slogan ever — “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” — William Henry Harrison won the presidency in 1840 with a shrewd campaign in which, for the first time ever, his Whig Party actively cultivated the support of women, who couldn’t yet vote but were becoming increasingly involved in the public arena.
This increased involvement was an offshoot of more educational opportunities for women and more access to communications, especially magazines devoted to women’s issues. Indeed, in the mid-19th Century there were more than 500 magazines in America that not only catered to women, but also were run by women editors, the most famous editor being Sarah Buell Hale, who edited the Ladies’ Magazine and later Godey’s Lady’s Book. At its apex in the 1860s, Godey’s Ladies’ Book had a circulation of 150,000, making it the most widely read magazine in America, male or female.
Born Sarah Buell this week (Oct. 24) in 1788, she had parents who believed in equal educational opportunities for women, and they home schooled her to the extent that she essentially received a college-equivalent education. Later she married a lawyer, David Hale, and had five children, but Hale’s untimely death in 1822 forced her to support her family by putting her education to use, particularly her writing and editing skills.
As editor — actually “editress”; she preferred the gendered title — Hale was a savvy newspaper woman who thrived in a male-dominated business by being as tough and competitive as any man. To that end, while her magazines mostly celebrated female domestic bliss — offering tips on women’s fashion, home decorating, cooking and child-rearing — she also covered women’s health, women’s rights and even the expanding role for women in public affairs. Hale too considered herself a proud Whig, the party of forward-thinking, activist government, and while she did not overtly write about politics she found ways to insinuate her pro-Whig sentiments into her magazines.
Her activism also found expression in her civic life. She helped found Vassar College; she joined the Mount Vernon Ladies Association — the forerunner of today’s historic preservation movement — in saving and preserving George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, and she was the driving force behind President Abraham Lincoln’s decision to restore Thanksgiving to its former status as a national holiday.
Hale was also a serious poet and novelist — her first book, Northwood, was a best-seller — yet, ironically, if she is remembered at all today it is for her poem “Mary’s Lamb,” which she published as a lark in a children’s Sunday School book in 1830. My guess is that this progressive, accomplished woman would have found it most unfortunate that “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” as it’s known today, is her modern claim to fame.