Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) was born at a time when American women were expected to be subservient to their fathers, and their husbands, and to stay in their assigned roles. Despite her desire to be a good daughter and support her husband, Perkins’ founding director Samuel Gridley Howe, Ward Howe eventually channeled her frustrations from the restrictions of her marriage and patriarchal society, into writing, lecturing, and participating in social activism, including women’s suffrage and education, and abolitionism. She is also remembered for writing the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a work that has become an enduring part of American culture, continuing to be referenced, reinterpreted, and performed today, including at Perkins every year.
Ward Howe was born on May 27th, 1819 in New York City to a father who was a partner in a prominent American investment bank and a mother who was a published poet. She had four younger sisters and two older brothers. Growing up in a wealthy household, Ward Howe was well educated and loved to read books, though her father dictated the books she was allowed to read (Showalter, 8). She was given the nickname “Diva Julia” and she and her sisters were referred to as the “Three Graces of Bond Street” (Richards and Elliott, 27-28). Ward Howe had aspirations of being a “great writer” one day but was expected to be a housewife (Showalter, 1-2).
In 1824 at the age of 5, Ward Howe’s mother died from complications from childbirth and subsequently, home life became isolated and strict. Socializing was restricted to family and for the sisters, life was mostly spent indoors (Showalter, 6). Since poetry was considered feminine, she was allowed more freedom in this. In 1836 she began writing published reviews of European literature. Her uncle wrote of this accomplishment, “This is my little girl who knows about books, and writes an article and has it printed, but I wish that she knew more about housekeeping” (Showalter, 14). When her father died in April of 1839, she found herself a wealthy heiress at the age of 20.
In 1841, Charles Sumner, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the Ward sisters visited what is now called the Perkins School for the Blind. Summer and Longfellow were friends with the director of the school, Samuel Gridley Howe. Visiting the school and its most famous pupil, Laura Bridgman, was popular at the time. Bridgman, a student who was deafblind, was educated by techniques developed by Howe and later modified 50 years later by Anne Sullivan when she taught Helen Keller. It was during this visit that Ward Howe met her future husband.
Samuel Gridley Howe was 41 when they met. He was a graduate of Brown University and Harvard Medical School, and he served as a surgeon and soldier in the Greek Civil War. Howe was the founding director of the first school for students with blindness in the United States. In this role, he advocated for educational and employment opportunities for people who were blind, published tactile books, and created the first lending library of embossed books in the United States.
Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward were married on April 26, 1843, and would end up having 6 children together. Unconventionally, Julia chose to be referred to as Mrs. Julia Ward Howe and not Mrs. Samuel Gridley Howe (Trent, 130). After a year-long honeymoon in Europe, where Ward Howe gave birth to the first of their six children, they returned to the United States. There were hints of a difficult marriage ahead during the honeymoon and the courtship.
Howe worked excessively, was not interested in socializing, and was not supportive of her writing or her having a public life. Howe held to a more traditional belief that his wife’s place was supporting him at home, in the role Showalter describes as the “submissive protected wife” (78). In 1865 Ward Howe wrote of her 22-year marriage, “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” (Showalter 173). She had a more progressive expectation of marriage. Despite the turmoil in the marriage, including a separation in 1852, Ward Howe eventually grew more confident pursuing writing, speaking, and leading organizations and committees she believed in, despite her husband’s objections.
Around 1846 to 1848 Ward Howe started writing a manuscript that would not be published until 2004 under the title The Hermaphrodite. The work is described by Elaine Showalter as, “about her feelings of loneliness, rejection, and uncertainty as a woman and artist” (88). She had some poems published in Female Poets of America in 1849 and in 1853 Ward Howe’s first volume of poetry, Passion-Flowers was written without Howe’s knowledge and was published anonymously. This was followed by Words for the Hour in 1857 and several plays. These works alluded to her unhappiness in marriage which was made even tenser when Howe found out about the publications (Showalter 115-116).
Other work at this time included travel writing and reports on high Newport society. In 1867 she became editor of the literary magazine, “Northern Lights” (Showalter 177). By 1868 Howe was no longer fighting her public activities so she became more active, especially in social reform causes (Hansan “Julia Ward Howe”).
A cause the couple agreed on was abolitionism. Throughout the 1850s they both became abolitionists (Showalter, 140). They supported John Brown, an abolitionist leader famous for leading a failed incitement of a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Howe was a member of the “Secret Six” that helped fund the raid on Harpers Ferry (Trent 209). Together the couple ran the abolitionist paper The Commonwealth from 1851 to 1853 and during this time Ward Howe wrote for the publication (Showalter 104).
During the Civil War, Howe worked for the US Sanitary Commission in Washington promoting hygiene, to make hospitals and soldiers safer. Ward Howe accompanied her husband to Washington D.C. in November of 1861, where Samuel was inspecting the condition of Union troops. Julia was encouraged by a preacher to come up with new lyrics to “John Brown’s Body,” one of several marching songs being played to “overcome the tedium of the carriage ride back to the city” (Tierney, “The Battle Hymn”). According to Ward Howe, the following morning:
“… . as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to my- self, ” I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them. (Howe, 275).
Ward Howe published the poem in the February 1861 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. The words would be sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body” becoming very popular with Union Soldiers and Union supporters (“Battle Hymn of the Republic”). After the Civil War, the words and song became associated with other social causes including Women’s Suffrage. Catharine Weed Campbell, a suffragette, modified it in 1890, as the “Battle Hymn of the Suffragettes (Tierney, “The Battle Hymn”).
In 1868 Ward Howe founded the New England Woman’s Club and New England Woman’s Suffrage Association. There were disagreements nationally that fractured groups and Ward Howe’s more conservative group formed the American Woman’s Suffrage Association. Eventually, the National Woman Suffrage Association led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony merged with the American Women’s Suffrage Association (“Julia Ward Howe” [PoetryFoundation.org]). In 1869 she helped establish the American Woman Suffrage Association and serves as its President for 26 years (“Julia Ward Howe Timeline”).
In 1870, she campaigned for a Mother’s Day for Peace, which became the holiday Mother’s Day. Around 1871, the Governor of Massachusetts nominated Ward Howe as a Justice of the Peace. The Massachusetts Supreme Court, however, decided that no woman could hold judicial office, and consequently, her appointment was denied (Katz, 156).
From 1872-1879 Ward Howe served as editor of the American Women’s Suffrage Association’s Women’s Journal and would contribute to the publication for 20 years (Showalter 188) (Michals “Julia Ward Howe”). The journal was “devoted to the interests of Woman—to her educational, industrial, legal and political Equality, and especially to her right of Suffrage” (Ryan “The Torch Bearer”). In 1873, Ward Howe was one of the first to get involved in the Association of the Advancement of Women and served the organization as president (Woolley, 16).
“Began my new life today,” wrote Ward Howe on the day after her husband’s funeral, January 14, 1876 (Showalter 204). With the death of her husband, she was now more free to pursue the public and active life she had sought for so long. As an author, Ward Howe continued publishing work that included poems, essays, and books. She also wrote a biography of her husband. Ward Howe wrote and spoke about suffrage and pacifism a great deal.
In 1877 Ward Howe helped found the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union in Boston. From 1891-1893 Ward Howe served as President of the New England Woman Suffrage Association (“Julia Ward Howe Timeline”). In 1908, she became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters at 88 years of age. In 1910, just two weeks before her death, Ward Howe received an honorary degree from Smith College for being a “poet and patriot, lover of letters and learning‚ a sincere friend of all that makes for the elevation and enrichment of women ” (Gardiner 30).
The death of her husband did not end Ward Howe’s ties with the school. Her son-in-law, Michael Anagnos, took over as director of the school and Ward Howe continued to have a presence at the school until her death. She was involved with causes including helping to raise funds for the Kindergarten for the Blind and presided at special events. In appreciation, the Battle Hymn of the Republic is still sung by students at Perkins at Founders Day events annually.
On February 12, 1987, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp to honor Julia Ward Howe as part of their Great American Series, honoring “individuals who have made significant contributions to this great nation’s heritage and culture.” (“U.S. Postal” 7). The Post Office chose the Perkins School for the Blind for the official first day of issue ceremony because of her ties to the school (“U.S. Postal” 6).
On October 17, 1910, Ward Howe died at the age of 91. Four thousand people were reported to have attended the public memorial service held by the city of Boston (“Julia Ward Howe” [songhall.org]). At this event Battle Hymn of the Republic was sung and attendees “invited to join” (12). Other memorials were held by the Women’s Industrial Conference and the New England Women’s Club and the pupils of Perkins were invited to sing at her funeral and burial (“Report” 14). In the 1911 Perkins Annual Report, it was written that:
“As the wife and widow of our first director and the mother-in-law of our second, she was more or less intimately connected with the institution for over half a century. She could always be counted on to further any of its interests and, as she grew older and less active, it became one of her dear privileges to do so. Her association with the institution has meant a very great deal to it; and we hold her memory as a precious possession” (14).
Ward Howe is recognized for creating the “momentum” that led to the passage of the 19th Amendment that secured American women the right to vote (“Julia Ward Howe” [PoetryFoundation.org]). For her work on behalf of women, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1988 (“Julia Ward Howe” [WomenoftheHall.org]).
While so many of Howe’s other accomplishments can get overshadowed by her authorship of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, it is likely because the influence of those words is so much a part of American culture now. According to Dominic Tierney, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, “would prove to be one of the most influential publications in the history of the Atlantic Monthly” (Tierney, “The Battle Hymn”). It has been used and adapted by activists from the Women’s Suffrage movement, to union organizers, to civil rights leaders. It is also tied to the public mourning of both Kennedys, and more recently to the memorial service for 9/11 at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. (Tierney, “The Battle Hymn”). In 1970 Ward Howe was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame for her work (“Julia Ward Howe” [songhall.org]).
Another notable legacy is that of her daughters’ writing. In 1917, Ward Howe’s daughters, Laura Elizabeth Richards and Maude Howe Elliott with the help of their sister Florence Howe Hall became the first women to win a Pulitzer Prize. It was awarded for the book Julia Ward Howe 1819-1910 which was also the first Pulitzer awarded for a biography (Heckman, “1917”).
Arnott, J, Coit, S., and Hale, J. (2022) Founders. Perkins Archives and Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.
Hale, Jen. “Julia Ward Howe” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA, October 26, 2022.