NWSA Journal 18.2 (2006) 230-234
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These three biographies raise fascinating questions about the conflicts and contradictions facing educated and ambitious women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The lives of Jane Addams, Julia Ward Howe, and Alice Hamilton span more than 150 years. Julia Ward Howe was born in 1819 and thus came to adulthood in an era when women had few civil or political rights. She dedicated the last part of her life to the struggle for suffrage, which she did not live to see. Jane Addams, the best known of these [End Page 230] women, was a key figure in progressive social reform of all kinds and saw the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote in 1920. Alice Hamilton, a pioneer in the field of industrial diseases and the first woman professor at Harvard, died in 1970, at a point when women had achieved formal equality and at the beginning of the second wave of feminism. Despite the different historical periods in which they lived, all three of these women faced the need to reconcile their desire for autonomy and meaningful work with their need for personal relationships. Also, all three faced the hostility of a patriarchal society.
Julia Ward Howe was a well-known celebrity in the late nineteenth century. The author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," founder of Mothers' Day for Peace (now transformed into the commercial holiday of Mothers' Day) and activist for women's suffrage and international peace, Howe lived to be 91. At the time of her death, she was one of the best-known women in the United States. In her writings, Howe emphasized the symbiotic nature of relationships between men and women. She accepted conventional ideas of the primacy of motherhood, but at the same time argued that women needed both respect and the power to express their own abilities. Ideally, men and women would join together in respectful marriage (she did not speak of same-sex relationships, even though these were common among the women with whom she worked in the suffrage movement). The deep contradiction in Howe's life, according to Valerie Ziegler in Diva Julia, was that her own marriage to Samuel Howe was profoundly unhappy. Samuel Howe resented his wife's literary and political activities; he was a domestic tyrant, was unfaithful, and attempted to undermine Julia at every point. In turn, she was uninterested in the domestic affairs of the household, terrified of pregnancy, and ambivalent about her relationships with her five children. It was only after Samuel Howe's death in 1876 that Julia Ward Howe's career as a women's rights and peace activist really blossomed.
Ziegler reads Howe's private letters and writings against both Howe's presentation of her life in her own publications and speeches and the prolific biographical writings of her three daughters. The Howe family jealously guarded Howe's public persona. Over the years they destroyed letters and documents that would challenge her image as a loving wife and mother who was able to balance domestic and public worlds. Even when family documents were given to libraries, the family limited access and attempted to control publications about Howe. Ziegler was able to work with materials that have only recently become available, and her biography is focused on the gap between the tormented married life described in Howe's letters and journals and the angelic wife and mother presented in her daughters' accounts. In Ziegler's account, the driving force of Howe's life was...