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A recent biography I was reading had a line that stopped me mid-page:
Damn. I tried to think of the American women poets from the nineteenth century I knew of—and it was true, I couldn’t think of another writer whose work I was ever taught in school. Emma Lazarus maybe? But read and studied—no.
In a search of over 300 entries on open syllabi, the only American woman who wrote poetry listed was Sarah Orne Jewett—but it was for her collection of short stories, not her poetry. And although she was born in the year 1884, her work was published in the twentieth century. It was kind of stunning to see it laid out like that.
The biography I was reading was The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe by Elaine Showalter. Howe (1819-1910) is known today largely as the writer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—the lofty, idealized, heavily christian hymn that gave voice to the Union Army’s cause during the Civil War. She gained widespread fame and publicity after writing Battle-Hymn, yet she had published poetry years before. Her first work was a collection of poems that scandalized and impressed in equal measure, published in 1853, titled Passion Flowers.3
At the time that Passion Flowers was published, Howe was a mother of two children in a deeply unhappy and abusive marriage. Married to a man twenty years older, she began to realize how controlling he was on their honeymoon. Samuel Howe—called Chev, as in chevalier—was a man who thought of himself as a Byronic hero, and ran a school for the blind and deaf that would later be connected with Helen Keller.
Julia loved to write and sing, and her spiritual life was important to her—all things that her husband was openly hostile to as it took attention away from him. He scorned women who made their thoughts known in public, sang in public, performed in public. Let alone women who published their writing.
Before their marriage, Howe’s husband wrote this rather chilling letter to Julia:
I give you fair warning; I shall not help you out of the cocoon state at all; you are a sweet, pretty, little mortal, & shall not be immortal if I can help it, this many a long year. I suppose you think you would look very beautifully emerging from the chrysalis state, & I should be proud to see a pair of wings sprouting out from your white shoulders…but no such thing, & I advise you not to show even a…feather, for I shall unmercifully cut them off, to keep you prisoner in my arms, my own dear earthly wife, who is to go forth with me through this pleasant world, until my wings grow also, where we shall fly away together.4
Howe was also scared to death of pregnancy ending her life, as it did for so many women. Each pregnancy was filled with fear and anxiety—and yet Howe was forced to have sex with her husband after she weaned her fourth child, after he threatened to divorce her and take the children away from her if she refused—which he legally had the right to do. To unmercifully cut off her wings was no idle threat.
She ultimately had six children with him, one of whom, a boy, died as an infant—an event that devastated the family. She was honest in letters about her ambivalence about motherhood—loving her children, but keenly aware of the emotional toll, the labor, and the lack of independence for her writing that caring for so many children involved. She struggled with the expectations placed on her by her husband, her society, her peers, and her friends. She couldn’t understand why the role of wife and mother caused her depression and despair. She thought it was something unnatural about her—this need for a life beyond what she was told a woman should want to be.
With the publication of Passion Flowers Howe became known as a popular writer, despite the constrictions she faced at home. She wrote poetry with a first-person voice—a woman writing about ambition and unhappiness, of feeling controlled and obscured—a type of poetry that had not yet really been heard from a woman’s pen in nineteenth-century America.
The most transparent—and popular—poem from the collection was titled “Mind versus Mill-Stream,” a parable on unhappiness in marriage. The poem describes a miller who tries to control a wild, bright stream by creating a water wheel and commanding the stream to power it. The stream refuses, and he becomes more intent on control by damming the stream to contain her:
"What? Will you force me?” said the sprite; “You shall not find it gain”, So, with a flash, a dash, a crash, She made her way amain. Then, freeing all her pent-up soul, She rushed, in frantic race And fragments of the Miller’s work Threw in the Miller’s face.
Howe’s husband felt humiliated by his wife seeking a public voice, let alone gaining fame with works that unashamedly exposed her personal experiences of marriage, motherhood, love, desire. He flew into a rage when he learned of the publication.
After the first edition sold out, he insisted that she change the title of the poem to simply “The Mill-Stream” in subsequent editions—of which several were made due to the work’s popularity at the time—as well as remove the moral originally included at the end of the poem:
If you would marry happily On the shady side of life Choose out some quietly-disposed And placid tempered wife, To share the length of sober days, And dimly slumberous nights, But well beware those fitful souls Fate wings for wilder flights! For men will woo the tempest, And wed it, to their cost, Then swear they took it for summer dew, And ah! their peace is lost!
I love the line “Fate wings for wilder flights!” Such fire in that line, in the midst of formal rhymed quatrains. Julia Ward Howe did not come to poetry only to write a famous hymn for the republic—she wrote to express her own inner fire that was being squelched as a wife and a mother, and to find an identity outside of the domestic realm that victorian women were relegated to.
Passion Flowers sold out its first edition in only a few weeks. Yet a fourth edition never ran, due to her husband’s insistence and embarrassment of images that he believed “such a pure minded & sensitive lady should not write.” He claimed that their young daughters would be harmed by reading the work of their mother, and he put a stop to further editions.
Howe’s poetry collection was reviewed by many popular writers of the time. The Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier praised Passion Flowers, writing to Howe:
It is a great book—it has placed thee at the head of us all. I like its noble aims, its scorn and hate of priestcraft and Slavery. It speaks out bravely, beautifully all I have felt, but could not express…5
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was a friend of the Howes, praised Julia’s work as
full of genius, full of beauty; but what a sad tone! Another cry of discontent added to the slogan of the femmes incomprises!6
Ralph Waldo Emerson did not send a review but wrote to Howe that he had not read the book yet but looked forward to reading the
private lyrics, whose air and words [are] all your own.
As Showalter writes, Emerson “could be a master of social as well as philosophical indirection.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne, who famously disliked women writers, wrote to his publisher (who was also Howe’s):
The devil must be in the woman to publish them….[the poems] seemed to let out a whole history of domestic unhappiness… What a strange propensity it is in these scribbling women, to make a show of their hearts…However, I, for one, am much obliged to the lady, and esteem her beyond all comparison the first of American poetesses. What does her husband think of it?
Yet a few years later he treated Howe’s work with more definitive scorn:
She has no genius or talent, making public what she ought to keep to herself—viz. her passions, emotions, and womanly weaknesses. Passion Flowers were delightful, but she ought to have been soundly whipt for publishing them.7
But only one review was by a woman—Ednah Dow Cheney, writer and transcendentalist, who saw it as a breakthrough for women’s poetry:
It really is a grave thing, and in this country, a rare thing, to publish such a book as this. Lively description and subtle sentiment have been the highest characteristics of the almost infinite…brood of female songsters…timidly yet earnestly, we have demanded something deeper than these, something truer to the idea of American womanhood. Shall we say that now, for the first time, we have been answered? We surely believe that this work stands for such a want in our Literature, and it is one that very many will not willingly let die.
I recently finished’s book Touched Out, a fantastic memoir about her experience becoming a wife and mother in the last decade, of reckoning the false ideals we are so conditioned to accept as women. Of trying to reconcile a desire to be a good partner, mother, and how it gets fractured as soon as the reality of those needs and demands and roles become clear—the self-erasure that women are expected to still accept as wives and mothers.
I hadn’t expected the biography of Howe and Montei’s work to be so directly in conversation with one another—but both works resonate with the disillusionment, as Montei writes, of
a woman looking for love, belonging, and fulfillment right where I was told I would find it and losing myself in the process.8
She later goes on to write:
American parenting in particular has been set up to manipulate and abuse women’s bodies and psyches, to put them to work for free and call it love, then to gaslight them into thinking they have done something wrong that led them there.9
Montei writes of her struggle to be a writer and gain any kind of income, especially as she became a wife and mother. Of how to keep an identity for oneself in a world that willingly believes that a career means we should absent ourselves from our families for 40+ hours a week, while women are also supposed to fully commit to giving our bodies and ourselves over to the work of care for children and home—i.e., that largely invisible labor that is relied upon by governments, corporations, and a capitalist economy.
With echoes in much of Howe’s poetry and letters, Montei writes:
Motherhood is made of cultural images we carry in our bodies, which deny us power, and which we nevertheless try to uphold, or meet, or transcend.10
Julia Ward Howe also tried to be the wife and mother society told her to be, despite that she found the demands of self-erasure in marriage and motherhood so devastating. She despaired throughout her marriage of not having bodily autonomy, any control over her own inheritance, any choice of home to live in, any choice of how many children her body and mind could support—and still feeling as if her desires for an identity outside of wife and mother was something inherently freakish, unnatural for a woman.
Both Showalter and Montei’s book exemplifies how, despite the choices we are told are ours to make as women, of the progress we are endlessly told we’ve made, the admonishments of lean in, and ideas of ‘mom guilt’ while struggling to also have a meaningful career—it’s all still with us across centuries, despite our best individual efforts to create something different. And that’s the important point Montei makes:
the idea that we can each tape up the culture of misogyny on our own, alone at home, by being good—that if we parent better or harder, our children won’t face the struggles we have—is another myth mothers are continually sold. Fix the home, fix how you do things, fix yourselves, ladies, and you’ll get free, we are told.11
In my own experience becoming a wife and mother, it was no different—no matter how egalitarian or equal my partner and I tried to live our lives. It all seeps in sideways and coerces us in ways we never anticipate, despite our best efforts to carve out something different. We can’t escape the way that societal demands have been shaped in a colonized, patriarchal world that’s been built on hierarchy and exploitation. Not on our own, alone.
In the first years of her marriage, Julia Ward Howe worked on a manuscript that lay unpublished and unfinished, until it was found again in the 1970s. It’s a work of fiction called The Hermaphrodite.
As Marianne Noble writes, the work is not so much about queering gender, necessarily, but a feminist text in questioning the confines of gender12. Writing in a time that unequivocally valued “masculine” forms of thought and being, Howe tried to make sense of her need for a more “masculine” public life by exploring what role gender expectations play in the life of a hero who is both man and woman.
The hero of the story, Laurence, born with both female and male anatomy, is first raised as a boy, and then lives as a man and a woman at different times of their adult life, without any success or love. It’s an exploration of how gender roles fail us, reflecting Howe’s own wish to be accepted as a fully human being, rather than as a woman whose only role is to be a wife and mother in the privacy of a home. It’s a surprising text on some levels, and yet the themes and questions, the unhappiness and despair of the hero are also evident in Howe’s early poetry.
For instance, Howe writes of her desire to not be fixed in place as a mother in her poem, “The Heart’s Astronomy”:
This evening, as the twilight fell, My younger children watched for me; Like cherubs in the window framed, I saw the smiling group of three. While round and round the house I trudged. Intent to walk a weary mile, Oft as I passed within their range, The little things would beck and smile. They watched me, as Astronomers, Whose business lies in heaven afar, Await, beside the slanting glass, The re-appearance of a star. Not so, not so, my pretty ones, Seek stars in yonder cloudless sky; But mark no steadfast path for me, A comet dire and strange am I… Among the shining I have shone, Among the blessing have been bleat; Then wearying years have held me bound Where darkness deadness gives, not rest... But Comets, too, have holy laws, Their fiery sinews to restrain, And from their outmost wanderings Are drawn to heaven's dear heart again. And ye, beloved ones, when ye know What wild, erratic natures are, Pray that the laws of heavenly force Would help and guide the Mother star.
Reading it feels like Howe was giving voice to the idea of mom guilt (an expression I heard so so often as a working mother and grew to despise) yet she gave voice to it over 170 years ago—of wanting to be all for our children but also resenting being fixed in place, unable to follow her own erratic path in life. Of needing to hold back something for her self—but knowing it’s a transgression from what she should be (i.e. mom guilt).
In the poem “Mother Mind,” Howe writes of her poems as her children of the soul—which will come to fruition only when they can finally be read. While the poem engages in the idea of a master muse that inspires her work unbidden, it is also a type of anti-apologia—as if saying sorry, can’t help that I need to write and publish, to have a public life—poetry is soul work:
These children of my soul I keep Where scarce a mortal man may see, Yet not unconsecrate, dear friend, Baptismal rites they claim of thee.
Howe was able to find the truly public life she longed for after she became a widow in 1876. Her fame after “Battle Hymn of the Republic” led to a more public life, but as a widow she was able to devote all her time to activism, working for women’s suffrage and abolition. She lectured and traveled and organized widely into her eighties, so much so that her grown children and even grandchildren continually asked her to stay home. She refused.
In her autobiography at the end of her life, she wrote about her struggles as a wife and mother, of falling under the patriarchal demands of women as angels in the house, invisible and ghostly—and of idealizing “masculine” ideals and how it isolates women from one another:
I sometimes feel as if words could not express the comfort and instruction which have come to me in the later years of my life from two sources. One of these has been the better acquaintance with my own sex; the other, the experience of the power resulting from associated action in behalf of worthy objects.
During the first two thirds of my life I looked to the masculine ideal of character as the only true one. I sought its inspiration, and referred my merits and demerits to its judicial verdict. In an unexpected hour a new light came to me, showing me a world of thought and of character quite beyond the limits within which I had hitherto been content to abide. The new domain now made clear to me was that of true womanhood,—woman no longer in her ancillary relation to her opposite, man, but in her direct relation to the divine plan and purpose, as a free agent, fully sharing with man every human right and every human responsibility. This discovery was like the addition of a new continent to the map of the world, or of a new testament to the old ordinances.
Oh, had I earlier known the power, the nobility, the intelligence which lie within the range of true womanhood, I had surely lived more wisely and to better purpose” Such were my reflections….13
I find Howe’s life and work at times both maddening and reassuring—maddening in the gentile tone women had to couch their work behind, even when they are writing in their own voice of their own lived experience. But reassuring as well, in that she found a way out eventually, despite years of abuse and being caged as a victorian woman—and that she fought with and for others to gain the same freedom she sought.
It doesn’t make it better though—that tired old chestnut of silver linings, making lemonade out of lemons, to laud her great resilience and make her life into a redemption story. I’m still angry that women like herself and so many others are controlled by structures and institutions, that it takes so much time and experience to see social reality for what it is—especially when we are also conditioned, in this cracked country, particularly, to value and believe in an individualist ethos.
Montei writes, poignantly:
society has turned its back on mothers, and what women feel when they find parenting full of impossible choices is better characterized as “betrayal” than burnout. “While burnout places the blame (and thus the responsibility) on the individual and tells working moms they aren’t resilient enough,” [Dr. Pooja] Lakshmin wrote, “betrayal points directly to the broken structures around them.”
Montei’s work, like Howe’s, is so important—it joins the chorus of women who have dared to expose their fire, anger, and sense of loss in trying to meet what society conditions a woman to be. These works refuse a world that tells us our emotions, feelings, and experiences are merely private affairs, refuse the idea of risk in sharing personal stories, and refuse the trope that women say too much. It’s that model of refusal that is so crucial—it allows others to recognize that we’re all being impacted by the same demands and structures that silence upholds.
Julia Ward Howe may be best known for her battle hymn, but I’d rather think of her battle poems, where despite their formality, she began breaking the wall for women’s voices in American poetry by writing of her own feelings and experiences—the voice of an angry, unhappy, unsatisfied woman who knew that she was born to be a comet, not a star.
And it took Emily Dickinson’s poems to really be widely read with the publication of her full collection in 1955—and still not in the order or with the original line breaks, and variations that she originally wrote until 2020.
Showalter, Elaine. 2016. The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe. Simon & Schuster. p. 132
After a search in a few antique book sites, I learned that it is nearly impossible to get a copy today unless you download an unformatted transcription of the work as a public domain text. So, nearly forgotten.
Noble, Marianne. 2012 “From Self-Erasure to Self-Possession: The Development of Julia Ward Howe’s Feminist Consciousness.” in Philosophies of Sex: Critical Essays on The Hermaphrodite. eds. Renee Bergland & Gary Williams. Ohio State University Press. p. 152
Ibid. p. 122
Ibid. p. 123
Ibid. p. 82
Ibid. p. 114
Montei, Amanda. p. 13
Noble, Marianne. p. 48
Ibid. p. 56