History


Julia Ward Howe is one of history’s famous mothers.  She was involved in the women’s suffrage movement.  With another woman she was the founder of Mother’s Day.  Without Howe, women would not have many of the rights that they have today, including the national holiday of Mother’s Day.  She was a successful contributor to women’s history through the advancement of motherhood, and of the rights of women more generally. 

            Julia Ward Howe was born on May 27, 1819, in New York City.  Howe was born into a long line of important people in the world of government and politics.  So she already had some of the power she would need to be involved in government issues.  Howe had five brothers and sisters.  Her father was a banker who earned lots of money.  Her mother gave Howe and the rest of her siblings lessons in French, Italian, music, and English, but Howe’s mother died at the age of twenty-seven when Howe was only five.  When she was sixteen she learned German from her older brother who had spent a couple of years in Germany.  A good start to an education was important for Howe to have. 

            Howe met her husband when she was twenty-four and he was forty.  His name was Doctor Samuel Gridley Howe.  Like Howe, he was involved in many things.  He had spent six years in Greece fighting in the war for independence.  His position was that of surgeon-in-chief.  He was also the Director of the Perkins Institution for the Blind where he educated the blind and deaf.  In addition, Doctor Howe edited the Boston Commonwealth (Howe worked on it as well with him), which was an anti-slavery paper.  They became engaged in the winter of 1842-43 in Boston, where Howe spent much of her time.  During their life together, they had six children.

            Howe began her involvement in the woman’s suffrage movement by joining an organization called the New England Woman’s Club.  She was a member from the very beginning, when the club was first established.  Howe gave speeches and contributed to debates among group members.  The group of women often went on trips to promote women’s suffrage outside their own city.  In 1868, Howe was asked to attend a women’s congress in New York City.  She served on a sub-committee whose task was to choose the topic of each annual congress meeting, and who the speakers would be.  Since the New England Woman’s Club was now expanding and working nationally, they became known as the Association for the Advancement of Women.  Their motto was “Truth, Justice, and Honor.”  In 1879, Howe was elected as the fourth president of the Association during a congress held in Boston. 

            In 1882, Howe was also asked to be the president of the first established Woman’s Department, a government agency in Boston.  They held industrial fairs to show how women were involved in many divisions of service and manufacturing.  In the fair, there were exhibits on the inventions and handicraft of women.  These included their articles, scientific work, and a variety of books women had written.  Much of the scientific work was contributed by the female students who attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  After Howe became the president of this Women’s Department, she was asked in 1883-84 to be the president of a woman’s committee in the great World’s Fair in New Orleans.  This fair had many financial difficulties, however, when people who said they would donate money never did. 

            During one of Howe’s trips to Paris, she was asked to be involved in a congress on woman’s rights.  There were two presidents elected for this congress.  Howe was one of them, and the other president was a man well known to the public.  The congress was held in France.  Having learned French from a very young age, Howe was a fluent speaker in the language and was able to participate in the congress which all in French.  In 1894, she was elected the president for United Friends of Armenia.  And, in 1891, she founded The American Friends of Russian Freedom.  Howe was clearly included in women’s rights and humanitarian causes not just in America, but globally. 

            Howe became with the problems facing the Armenian culture.  The Turks were stripping Armenians of all their rights and protection.  Many Armenians were being killed by the Turks, which is still a situation happening today.  On November 26, 1894, the Boston Armenian Relief Committee called a meeting.  Howe gave a speech that day asking members to contribute in the effort to save the Armenians.  Not too long later, she was named their president.  Howe was involved on the committee for many years.  Every time there was a threat to the Armenians, the committee, along with Howe, would work to stop the threat.          

            The American Academy of Arts and Letters elected Howe as their first woman member in 1907.  She received three honorary doctorates of letters degrees.  When she got a degree from Smith College, they described her as: “Poet and patriot, lover of letters and learning; advocate for over half a century in print and living speech of great causes of human liberty; [and] sincere friend of all that makes for the elevation and enrichment of women.”  This quotation basically described Howe as being a woman who loved to learn as well as teach.  She cared about the advancement of everyone; women, African- Americans, and Armenians, among them.     

            Howe was also a mother figure to many people all over the United States.  Along with a woman named Anna Jarvis, she established the holiday of Mother’s Day in America.  The two women did not work together, however.  Howe was influenced by Jarvis who had started working on establishing a day for mothers before her.  During this time, the Civil War was going on.  Howe acted as a mother to all the young boys fighting in the war, as well as the young children whose fathers were fighting in the war or were killed.  She did this by stating that young men should not be involved in the war.  And the children of dead veterans, who were now orphans, needed help.  She attempted to convince mothers of the hardships that children faced because of the war, and that children and families should not be involved in warfare.  Howe began hosting meetings for women and mothers to attend.  In the meetings, they worked towards re-establishing peace, improving economic conditions, sanitary conditions, and coming up with solutions to reconcile the Confederate side and the Union side.  Howe would have meetings once a year in Boston.  On May 8, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially declared that the second Sunday of every May was to be celebrated as Mother’s Day.  It was also a day to honor mothers who worked hard at motherhood, as well as to improve society.    

            Howe was inducted into the National Woman’s Hall of Fame in 1998.  She was successful at getting mothers the recognition they deserved, as well as women in general.  She was not only a big help to mothers and women, but also made positive contributions in the fight against slavery, and of the rights of other countries such as Armenia.  Julia Ward Howe died on the morning of Monday October 17, 1910, due to pneumonia.  When Howe’s daughter, Maud, asked her what her ideal aim of life was, Howe responded, “To learn, to teach, to serve, to enjoy.”   Howe definitely achieved these four ideals in her life.