Born on October 24, 1778 in Newport, New Hampshire, Sarah Josepha Buell was destined to become one of the most influential women of the 19th century. Her accomplishments, from a well-known children's poem, to a Revolutionary War memorial, to a national holiday, would be remembered throughout America, although her name would not.
Sarah's parents, Captain George Buell, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, and Martha Whittlesay Buell had very progressive views on the education of women. She and her brother were both home-schooled with whatever books could be found, giving her a good foundation in the classics. When her brother Horatio attended Dartmouth, he would come home and teach her what he had learned that day, effectively giving her a Dartmouth education without her ever entering the school. When Horatio received his diploma, he awarded Sarah a diploma from the Horatio Gates Buell College stating that she had earned a degree in the Arts, Summa Cum Laude.
Despite the fact that she lived in a time when women were not acceptable schoolteachers, Sarah opened her own private school when she was eighteen. She continued teaching for several years, and it was during this period she wrote a small poem entitled "Mary Had A Little Lamb" about one of her students whose lamb really did follow her around. The poem, of course, became a classic; children all over the world still sing it today.
In 1813, Sarah left teaching to marry David Hale, a young lawyer she had fallen in love with. David, too, loved books, and he also believed that women should be as educated as men. Some say that's one of the reasons Sarah could marry him; she would always have chosen an education over a husband, if push came to shove. They had several happy years together until David died of pneumonia in 1822. Sarah, raising four young children and pregnant with a fifth, was left unsupported and in debt. Fortunately, David had been a Freemason, and his Masonic brothers came to her aid and set her up in a millinery business.
Sarah's real break came when the Masons paid to have The Genius of Oblivion and Other Original Poems, a book of her poetry, published. It enjoyed enough success to give her the freedom to take time off from the millinery to write Northwood: A Tale of New England, the first novel to deal directly with the issue of slavery as part of its plot. Northwood caught the attention of Reverend John Blake of Boston, who was planning to start a new women's magazine called Ladies Magazine. He offered her the position of editor, and made her the first female magazine editor in the United States.
At a time when American magazines still published primarily British writers, Sarah used her position to promote American literature. She wrote much of the magazine's content herself and insisted that all stories published in it were by America authors. She came up with the concept of "American literature, by and for Americans," and the magazine's title was changed to American Ladies Magazine to reflect her policies.
Sarah also used her position to lobby for her personal causes, including women's rights and civic-minded projects. After male fundraising efforts failed, she managed to raise $30,000 for the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument. She encouraged women to contribute to the fund through her editorials, but men controlled the finances at the time. So she organized a large women's fair in 1840, where women donated handmade items to be sold. Enougb money was raised that the memorial could be completed in 1843, making it the first American monument built to commemorate an event in the nation's past. She would later start a similar movement to preserve George Washington's home at Mount Vernon.
She continued to support the causes of women's education and economic freedom. While in Boston, she founded the Seaman's Aid Society, which sought to help poor women and their children by providing food, housing and job skills. She pushed for these women to be able to support themselves and their families. She also believed that women should be able to become physicians, teachers, and even overseas missionaries. She threw her support behind Elizabeth Blackwell's bid to become America's first female doctor, and was instrumental in convincing Andrew Vassar to hire female administrators and instructors for his newly created college. At her objection, the name of the institution was even changed from Vassar Female College to Vassar College.
Suffragists of the time criticized Sarah for not throwing her influence fully into their cause. While she promoted equal education for women, she still felt that women's primary domain was the home. Her stance on women in the workplace was pragmatic rather than idealogical; industrialization made ouitside careers for women necessary. She even actively opposed the women's rights movements attempts to take women out of the home in editorials in the 1840s and 1850s. Women needed equal education to become better wives and mothers, not because they needed to make a place for themselves in a male-dominated workforce.
Sarah's parents had celebrated Thanksgiving annually, even though it was originally a one-time event. She felt that it should be celebrated nationally every year on the same date and lobbied incessantly for 36 years to try and make it happen. She wrote countless editorials in her magazine and sent letters to state governors and more than one President of the United States to push for a national proclimation. In 1863, she got her wish, when President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation making the Thanksgiving a national holiday to be held on the last Thursday of November.
The economic pressures of the 1830s finally forced the sale of American Ladies Magazine to Philadelphia publisher Louis Godey. He merged it with Godey's Lady's Book and offered Sarah the position of editor over the combined magazine. She agreed, and edited the publication from Boston until moving to Philadelphia in 1841. It became one of the most successful magazines of its time, with 150,000 subscribers. Unfortunately, as the women's rights movement gained power in the 1850s, Godey's proved too conservative and went into decline. The quality of the fiction gradually dropped, and fashion plates began taking over more of the magazine. Sarah resigned as editor in 1877 when it was sold to Frank Munsey. Without her, the magazine flundered until it folded in 1898. Sarah herself died in Philadelphia on April 30, 1879 at the age of 91.
"The Literary Scene in Newport, New Hampshire" by Evan Hill, Boston Globe, August 17, 1975