born in New York City in 1819 and died
in Portsmouth, Rhode Island in 1910. On
her father's side she was descended from
Roger Williams and two governors of Rhode
Island. Her mother was the great grand
niece of Revolutionary War legend Francis
Marion (nicknamed "The Swamp Fox”).
Julia's father, Samuel, was a successful
Wall Street banker. Her mother, Julia,
a published poet, died shortly after giving
birth to her seventh child. The Ward children
were left to the care of their father.
Ward’s concern for the welfare of
his children was often overpowering. Julia
was from the first an intelligent and
inquisitive child. She educated herself
and became a formidable intellect in a
time when women were very limited in their
educational endeavors. Julia benefited
from the excellent library her brother
shipped from Europe during his travels.
Without her father’s knowledge she
became acquainted with writers such as
Balzac and Sand. Their modern ideas regarding
the world contrasted sharply with the
puritanical Calvinism espoused by her
father. Julia was torn between her love
for her father and her ambitions as a
writer, a thinker and an individual.
Julia was as fun loving as she was serious.
As a wealthy heiress, social contact (though
limited by her father) brought her into
contact with some of the leading minds
of the time. It was her brother Sam who
exposed her to people like Longfellow,
Dickens, Charles Sumner and Margaret Fuller.
When their father died in 1839, it was
to Sam's house that Julia and her two
sisters moved. Sam had recently married
Emily Astor, the favorite grandchild of
John Jacob Astor. Under her supervision,
Julia and her sisters were introduced
to New York society. Too soon tragedy
struck, though, and in 1841 Emily Astor
and her newborn son both died. Sam and
his sisters were cast back into mourning.
Not long after this, in April of 1843,
Julia met and quickly married Samuel Gridley
Howe, himself famous for his work on behalf
of the Greek Revolution, for his reform
work for prisoners, and his efforts in
education for the blind. Life certainly
would have turned out differently had
Julia’s parents lived to see her
married. And only she could know whether
all of the tragedy and confusion in her
family caused her to marry someone more
quickly than she otherwise would have.
However, by summer the newlyweds were
embarked on a wedding trip to Europe accompanied
by Julia’s youngest sister Annie.
Much current scholarship is devoted to
the analysis of the couple’s well-documented
and tumultuous relationship. Julia grew
from being a coddled and cared-for, yet
independent-minded New York heiress, into
a wife and mother living in the remote,
isolated quarters of the Perkins’
Institute for the blind, in Watertown,
Massachusetts (outside Boston), where
her husband was engaged with his teaching
Samuel Gridley Howe was twenty years older
than his young wife, and upon their marriage
(and against the protestations of Julia's
family), he took charge of the income
received from her large estate. Julia
was not to have charge of her economic
affairs until her husband died in 1876.
At that point, though, due to a series
of bad investments by both her husband
and her uncle and brothers, much of the
money was spent. Julia found herself a
widow with a very meager income. By the
end of her own life Julia was a workingwoman,
earning her own money and in control of
her own life. But at the time of her marriage
circumstances were quite different.
Gridley Howe was a strong willed and autocratic
husband. He forbade Julia from working
outside of the home. His views on the
roles of married women suggested that
they forge a career out of ‘wifely
duties’ and motherhood. Julia Ward
Howe spent the first several years of
her marriage engaged in rearing children
and reading philosophy, attempting to
reconcile herself to her new life in Boston.
Her letters to her sisters during this
period indicate that this was a difficult
time for the couple. Julia expresses depression
and sorrow, and she describes the struggles
of a 19th century woman seeking independence
Trouble between Sam and Julia continued
to escalate, and in 1852 the couple separated.
Julia and her two youngest children stayed
with her sister in Rome while her two
eldest daughters remained in Boston with
their father. During this period a family
dynamic emerged between the couple and
their children that would remain throughout
Not long after her return, she broke with
her husband's wishes about making public
her work. “Passion Flowers,”
a collection of her poems was published
anonymously. However the author’s
identity soon became know probably because
many of the poems were so personally descriptive.
While the poetry itself was not very well
received, the sentiments presented were
sensational. The poems revealed the intimate
affairs of a ‘real’ man and
woman, hinted at infidelity, openly challenged
her husband's authority and generally
exposed the author in a manner which Boston
society found shocking for a woman. Sam
was devastated by what he perceived to
be his wife's disobedience and betrayal.
Their marriage remained strained. Julia
retreated into her previous depression,
yet it is clear that she had developed
a new resolve.
Julia became very involved in the reform
movement and supported issues like abolition,
women's rights, prison reform and education.
She developed close friendships with members
of the Boston intellectual elite -- William
Ellery Channing, Thomas Wentworth Higginson,
and Theodore Parker.
Despite his objections to Julia’s
working outside the home, Sam relied heavily
on his wife as editor and writer for his
newspaper, "The Commonwealth."
This short-lived venture was seen by many
as incendiary propaganda for the abolition
movement. As the Civil War approached,
Howe became heavily involved in the funding
of John Brown's revolution. When John
Brown was captured, Sam fled to Canada
to avoid prosecution as a collaborator.
An excellent history of this period, and
his involvement, can be found in the book,
The Secret Six, by Edward Renahan.
While Sam objected to Julia’s work,
he did not always stop her from attending
to it; and while Julia was prevented from
attending to some of the work she wished
to engage in, she managed to free herself
from her husband’s demands and secure
her own interests. She was fluent in seven
languages and a serious scholar of philosophy.
When her poem, the "Battle Hymn of
the Republic," was published in 1861,
it brought her instant celebrity, and
the song would make her one of the most
famous women in 19th century America.
Julia continued her study and work for
reform. Women’s Suffrage was the
cause she was most involved in and she
began to be known for her strong and outspoken
views. Julia was the mother of seven children,
one of whom, Sam Jr., died during infancy.
Her marriage had now settled into a workable
arrangement. Her fame brought her even
more autonomy, and her ambitions were
beginning to be realized. By the time
her husband died in 1876, she had established
a career for herself as a preacher, a
reformer, a writer and a poet.
In the first journal entry after her husband's
death Julia wrote, "Start my new
life today," and indeed she did.
For the next forty some years she was
a strong force. She answered to no one
except herself and God. Julia traveled
the world promoting Women's Rights, Peace,
Prison and Education Reform as a preacher,
lecturer and dignitary. She was seen as
a bridge between Society and Reform and
used her celebrity and social status to
further her ideology.
Among her many contributions to American
society is her famous "Battle Hymn
of the Republic," which has become
a national anthem of sorts. She was also
co-editor and writer for The Woman's Journal,
which lobbied for suffrage and human rights.
She was instrumental in creating Mother's
Day, which she envisioned as a day of
solemn council where women from all over
the world could meet to discuss the means
whereby to achieve world peace. They would
also convene as mothers, keeping in mind
the duty of protecting their children.
She became the first woman elected to
the Society of Arts and Letters, and the
biography of her, written by her children,
won the Pulitzer Prize.
In addition to her reform work, Julia
Ward Howe wrote travel books, children's
fiction and music. Oscar Wilde paid her
a visit in Newport. William Dean Howell's
regretted not knowing her better. Emerson
wished she were from Boston. And Samuel
Clemens was a cohort and friend. Julia
Ward Howe's letters and diaries read like
a who’s-who of 19th century history,
and her ideas are as pertinent today as
they were during her own lifetime.
There is so much more to be known and
understood about the life of Julia Ward
Howe. As current scholars note, there
is much to be studied regarding gender
and sexual politics. Gary Williams, author
of “The Hungry Heart: The Literary
Emergence of Julia Ward Howe," has
recently published a manuscript of hers
dealing explicitly with gender politics
in a work entitled, "The Hermaphrodite."
Julia Ward Howe had her faults, and none
is more notable than her vanity. She thought
very well of herself and was not afraid
to voice her less than generous assessments
of others. She often revealed her own
ignorance and stubbornness, and perhaps
this accounts for the solitude she encountered
during her early years in Boston. However,
over time, she outlived many of her detractors
and her status as an American icon became
almost mythical. Some refer to her as
"The Queen of America."