Sunday, March 6, 2016

Julia Ward Howe, Feminist

Until today I knew one thing about Julia Ward Howe, that she wrote the words to The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Thanks to this review of a new biography by Elaine Showalter, I know much more, and it is quite fascinating. Howe, born in 1819, was miserably married to a much older man who belittled her literary ambitions:
At home with her young children and pregnant more often than not — “My books are all that keep me alive” — Howe was miserable. “My thoughts grow daily more insignificant and commonplace.” She wanted to use ether during childbirth. Her husband forbade it, declaring that women need discipline: “The pains of child birth are meant by a beneficent creator to be the means of leading them back to lives of temperance, exercise and reason.” In 1847, Howe confided to her sister that her life had become unspeakable, unbearable: “You cannot, cannot know the history, the inner history of the last four years.”

Secretly, she began writing a novel, “the history of a strange being, written as truly as I knew how to write it.” She never tried to publish it. The manuscript, with its first page and title missing, was deposited at Harvard’s Houghton Library in 1951 by Howe’s granddaughter, amid “10 boxes of unsorted prose manuscripts and ­speeches.” Possibly the first person ever to read it was Mary H. Grant, a graduate student who discovered it in 1977.
The book was eventually published as The Hermaphrodite in 2004. It tells the story of a hermaphroditic person who lives alternately as a man or a woman, loving whichever sex happens to be opposite; a revolutionary tale for 1851. Howe's book of poetry, Passion-Flowers, was published anonymously in 1854, to considerable acclaim, although some objected to its descriptions of an awful marriage:
Nathaniel Hawthorne, asked what American books Europeans didn’t know about but ought to, named Walden first and then Passion-Flowers. He admired it but didn’t approve of it; the poems “let out a whole history of domestic unhappiness,” he thought. A few years later, he declared that “she ought to have been soundly whipt for publishing them.”

But, of course, she was soundly whipped. When he learned the truth, her husband raged at her, said her poems “border on the erotic,” and then, following a long estrangement, demanded they resume sexual relations or else divorce. It was likely, she wrote to her sister, that he wanted to marry “some young girl who would love him supremely.” Faced with the prospect of losing her children, she gave in: “I made the greatest sacrifice I can ever be called upon to make,” she confessed. When she became pregnant yet again, her husband considered putting the baby up for adoption if she disobeyed him.
Miserable at home, Howe threw herself into abolitionism, and after the Civil War into feminism, serving as president of the American Woman Suffrage Association and founding the Association for the Advancement of Women.

In 1865 Howe wrote,
I have been married 22 years today. In the course of this time I have never known my husband to approve of any act of mine which I myself valued. Books — poems — essays — everything has been contemptible or contraband in his eyes.
In 1876, on the day of her husband's funeral, she wrote, “Began my new life today.”

It is always amazing when people achieve so much despite awful circumstances. It is also important to be reminded from time to time what feminism is about, and why people fought so long and hard for the right to divorce.

1 comment:

Susi said...

There are many living today, mainly women, who are in this kind of miserable relationship.