The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe

Thoughts on the Creative Voices of Women

I am currently reading a recently-published biography titled The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe, by Elaine Showalter. Although Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) is best known to Americans for having written the lyrics to the iconic song The Battle Hymn of the Republic, she saw herself for much of her life first and foremost as a poet. Indeed, she was a published poet, playwright, essayist, and women’s rights activist, but one whose creative voice was stifled at almost every turn until much later in her life. Because she lived at a time when women were not allowed control over their own financial affairs, when women who married were expected only to have children and keep the household, and when the consequences of stepping outside the lines that society had drawn for them were dire, Howe struggled mightily to write anything, much less get it published. Reading this book has once again made me infinitely glad that I was born when I was, and not back in earlier times, when the lives of women were so different than they are now. The freedoms that women have gained since Howe’s time are so many and varied that I have often wondered how many other creative women we would be familiar with now, had their voices not been stifled back then.

The changes in attitudes towards women in the arts just in my own lifetime have been radical, and I have been the beneficiary of many of them. I came of age during the women's rights movement of the 1970's and the fights that we fought back then have given us momentum towards continuing to change the future. While the canon of the histories of the creative arts is still dominated by white males, and some fields are still male-dominated (architecture and movies, anyone?) the work of females and other marginalized groups is increasingly being taught more in schools, and is certainly being exhibited/published/performed/built. The internet has created public platforms for artists that were unimaginable only a few years ago. It’s my view that the participation of females in the arts is profound and that their work is valued more today than ever.

Is there more to be done in this regard? Yes. Absolutely.

But we shouldn’t lose sight of how far we have come from earlier times, when it was impossible for so many women like Julia Ward Howe to express themselves creatively, much less be recognized and lauded for their efforts.