Mr. Godey’s Lady

PrintPrintEmailEmail

What a vastly more interesting companion and “help-meet” a wife would make, she declared in her campaign for the education of girls and young women, if she were intelligent enough to talk sympathetically with her husband after a day’s work. In this light, it appeared to the men that they stood to gain more from the education of women than women themselves did, and they could not justify opposing it.

Mrs. Hale, in other words, had no objection (as did some feminists) to the word “obey” in the marriage ceremony. All she felt was that women ought to be able to read it and write it—for 50 per cent of her generation of women were illiterate. The average woman, a slave to the hearth, was subject always to, the caprice of her husband. She could neither hold property nor vote, nor was she considered worthy of an education or even capable of acquiring one.

“The time of action is now,” declared Mrs. Hale in November, 1846. “We have only to sow the fields- the harvest is sure. The greatest triumph of this progression is redeeming woman from her inferior position and placing her side by side with man, a helpmeet for him in all his pursuits. …” Scarcely an issue of the Lady’s Book was published during the forty years of her editorship in which she did not have something to say about education for women and in behalf of educated women in schools and colleges as teachers and professors. She warmly supported Emma Willard’s pioneer seminary in Troy, New York, helped Matthew Vassar to found his college, and fought for state-supported normal schools.

During the 1840’s she gave Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the United States to receive a degree in medicine, her most resolute, even militant, support. In the public furor that followed one critic charged Mrs. Hale with attempting to starve men out of the field of medicine. She replied, uncharacteristically, that the men might as well starve as the women. “If men cannot cope with women in the medical profession, let them take an humble occupation in which they can.” In 1850 the Female Medical School of Philadelphia, largely her creation, opened its doors. The following year she organized and became president of the Ladies’ Medical Missionary Society of Philadelphia. In a glowing editorial about Florence Nightingale she urged that nurses’ training schools be established, but the Civil War had long since ended when, in 1873, the first ones were opened.

Meanwhile the persistent editor of Godey’s was advocating women as clerks in department stores and as waitresses. “Why should women do the harder indoor work of washing, ironing, scrubbing, cooking … and men be employed to carry in the food and wait on table? … Is such an arrangement just or good? Has not man intruded into woman’s sphere in this domestic service?”

But Mrs. Hale was devoted to causes which were not just those of her own sex. She had much to do with the preservation of Mount Vernon as a national shrine and for three decades expended gallons of printer’s ink in behalf of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. She had to wait until President Lincoln’s administration, when a proclamation from the White House fulfilled her heart’s desire.

As the years passed she became more and more critical of the Victorian era and what it was doing to women. Woman needed to be emancipated from her heavy costume. Anyone’s health was bound to suffer from imprisonment in all the layers—the flannel petticoat, the under-petticoat, the petticoat wadded to the knees, the white starched petticoat, then the two muslin petticoats, and at length the dress. Mrs. Hale despaired of the wasp waist, hoop skirts, and the swooning parlor-type of lady who wore them. As an antidote she published lessons in calisthenics for ladies and recommended outdoor activities such as the graceful new game of croquet, “Picnics,” swimming, and, above all, horseback riding as “beautifying to the human figure.” She was sure that “amusements of this sort will do more to restore the roses to the cheeks of our young girls, faded by a campaign in a winter’s ballrooms, than all the doses which the materia medica can suggest.”

She was never afraid to fly in the face of fashion—even men’s, and in the height of the Victorian era put on a campaign against beards. “Whiskerandos,” she called men who wore them, and dismissed the whole fad as an “immense waste of bear’s grease.” Whiskers so hid the faces of those who wore them that a young lady was not able to distinguish her brother from her cousin. Furthermore, “Persons who carry their faces behind a mask of this sort cannot be supposed to possess clear consciences, for honesty and fair-dealing have no motives for any such concealment.”