Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook

By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell | Go to book overview

CONCLUSION

Julia Ward Howe was a luminary in the woman suffrage movement. She added to its credibility, despite being a figure of some contradiction. For suffragists everywhere, she was a cheerleader for the cause, rekindling optimism in the rank and file, and forecasting victory at every turn.

For conservative women, she was a role model for how a "society lady" could turn reformer gracefully. In a biography of their mother, Laura Richards and Maud Howe Elliott recalled that a male friend once said: "Her great importance to this cause is that she forms a bridge between the world of society and the world of reform" ( 1925:197).

By age seventy, she had become almost a permanent fixture at any grand commemorative occasion in Boston and Washington, where encore performances of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" were common occurrences. Presidents from Lincoln to Taft praised her civic-mindedness. The public's perception of her as a "true-blue patriot" enhanced her efforts to attract a large forum for causes like woman's rights and world peace. While the pessimistic rhetoric of some reformers was too disturbing for most people's taste, her social millennialism was hard to resist. As her daughter Florence Howe Hall observed, "her rare culture and wide acquaintance with the best and most distinguished men and women of her day invest[ed] her words with authority" (Intro., WSM:5).

Yet for suffrage leaders, Ward Howe must have been a puzzlement and, to an extent, a disappointment. First, her inability to embrace a consistent woman's rights ideology made her less effective at articulating the philosophic core of the movement and, ultimately, made her less recognizable as a persuasive figure within the movement's rank and file. In keeping with the tenets of Transcendentalism, she advanced the androgyny of the sexes, yet she also repeatedly argued that women were specially endowed as moral creatures. She celebrated civic pride and military prowess, as part of beliefs in social millennialism, yet embraced pacifism in her affiliation with the peace movement. The woman who sang the Union's praises in "The Battle Hymn" also exhorted readers of the Journal to "Disarm! disarm!," warning that "The sword of murder is not the balance of justice" ( September 24, 1870:297). She refused to associate with "radicals" of the movement, yet she idolized Margaret Fuller, a radical in her time.

Second, Ward Howe's long list of club memberships may have won her a diverse following, but it compromised her loyalty to woman suffrage. Her lack of focus disturbed some suffragists. In 1888, when the two rival associations were contemplating unification, SUSAN B. ANTHONY suggested that Ward Howe not be considered for offices in the new organization because she had not developed her reputation solely as a suffragist.

Third, conspicuously absent from Ward Howe's rhetoric was any real disaffection with the status quo--a key movement characteristic. She did not chronicle the injustices done to women; she did not revel in castigating a scapegoat; she

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