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Julia was born in New York City. She was the fourth of seven children born to a Wall Street stockbroker, Samuel Ward III and his wife, occasional poet Julia Rush Cutler. Her eldest brother was Samuel Cutler Ward. Samuel Ward III was a well-to-do banker and was a strict Calvinist. Julia Rush Cutler was related to Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox" of the American Revolution. Julia Ward's family was an upper middle-class family. When Julia was five, her mother died of tuberculosis. Julia was educated by private tutors and in schools for young ladies until she was sixteen. Also, thanks to her older brother’s travels in Europe, she possessed a private library of modern works, many contradicting the Calvinistic world view presented by her father. Due to these circumstances Julia was able to become very well-read and frighteningly intelligent Julia, though limited by her father, was as much a social butterfly as she was a scholar, and due to her father’s status as a successful banker, she was brought into contact with some of the greatest minds of her time. She interacted with Dickens, Charles Sumner, and Margaret Fuller to name a few through her brother, Sam. Sam married into the Astor family, which was highly prominent at the time, allowing him great social freedom that he brought Julia into. Julia and her sisters were cast into mourning time and again. Their father died in 1839. Shortly after her father’s death, Julia’s dear brother and sister-in-law also passed away, along with their newborn child.
Visiting Boston in 1841, Julia met Samuel Gridley Howe (1801—1876), a physician and reformer who founded the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts. His parents were Joseph Neals Howe and Patty Gridley. They announced their engagement quite suddenly on February 21; though Howe had courted Julia for a time, he had more recently shown an interest in her sister Louisa. In 1843, they married despite their eighteen year age difference. She gave birth to her first child while honeymooning in Europe, eleven months later. She bore her last child in 1858 at the age of forty. They had six children: Julia Romana Howe (1844–1886), Florence Marion Howe (1845–1922), Henry Marion Howe (1848–1922), Laura Elizabeth Howe (1850–1943), Maud Howe (1855–1948), and Samuel Gridley Howe, Jr. (1858–1863).
Julia lived and raised her children in South Boston, while her husband participated in prison and school reforms, education for the “feeble minded”, Greek and Armenian foreign relief, and abolitionism. Julia was unhappy with her surroundings, so she took lectures, and studied foreign languages, and wrote plays and dramas. Julia had published essays on Goethe, Schiller and Lamartine before her marriage to Howe, in the New York Review and Theological Review.
Her book, Passion-Flowers, was published in December 1853. The book collected intensely personal poems and was written without the awareness of her husband, who was then editing the Free Soil newspaper The Commonwealth. Her second anonymous collection, Words for the Hour, appeared in 1857. She went on to write plays such as Leonora, The World’s Own, and Hippolytus. These works, all contained allusions to her stultifying marriage (VanBurleo, Miles). Julia went on many trips, several for missions. In 1860, she published a book, A Trip to Cuba, which told of an 1859 trip she had taken. It had generated outrage from William Lloyd Garrison, an abolitionist, for its derogatory view of Blacks. (Julia had only recently become an abolitionist in the 1850’s, her family believing it to be a social evil. She thus believed it was morally right to free the slaves but did not believe in social or racial equality). Also, several letters on High Newport society were published in the New York Tribune in 1860, as well.
Julia's being a published author troubled Samuel greatly, especially due to the fact that her poems many times had to do with critiques of women’s roles as wives, her own marriage, and women’s place in society. Their marriage problems escalated to the point where they separated in 1852. Samuel, when he became her husband, had also taken complete control of her estate income. Upon her husband’s death in 1876, Julia had found that through a series of bad investments that most of her money had been spent.
Julia’s writing and social activism were greatly shaped by her upbringing and married life. Much study has gone into her difficult marriage and how it influenced her work, both written and active.
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Julia Ward Howe was inspired to write "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" after she and her husband visited Washington, D. C., and met Abraham Lincoln at the White House in November 1861. During the trip, her friend James Freeman Clarke suggested she write new words to the song "John Brown's Body", which she did on November 19. The song was set to William Steffe's already-existing music and Howe's version was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1862. It quickly became one of the most popular songs of the Union during the American Civil War.
Now that Howe was in the public eye, she produced eleven issues of the literary magazine, Northern Lights, in 1867. That same year she wrote about her travels to Europe in From the Oak to the Olive. After the war she focused her activities on the causes of pacifism and women's suffrage. By 1868, Julia’s husband no longer opposed her involvement in public life, so Julia decided to become active in reform. She helped found the New England Women’s club and the New England Woman Suffrage Association. She served as president for nine years beginning in 1868. In 1869, she became co-leader with Lucy Stone of the American Woman Suffrage Association. Then, in 1870, she became president of the New England Women’s Club. After her husband's death in 1876, she focused more on her interests in reform. She was the founder and from 1876 to 1897 president of the Association of American Women, which advocated for women's education. She also served as president of organizations like the New England Women's Club, the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association, the New England Suffrage Association, and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA).
In 1870 she founded the weekly Woman’s Journal, a suffragist magazine which was widely read. She contributed to it for twenty years. That same year, she wrote her "Appeal to womanhood throughout the world", later known as Mother's Day Proclamation. It asked women from the world to join for world's peace. In 1872, she asked that "Mother's Day" be celebrated on the 2nd of June. Her efforts were not successful, and by 1893 she was wondering if the 4th of July could be remade into "Mother's Day". In 1874, she edited a coeducational defense titled Sex and Education. She wrote a collection about the places she lived in 1880 called Modern Society. In 1883, Howe published a biography on Margaret Fuller. Then, in 1885 she published another collection of lectures called Is Polite Society Polite? Finally in 1899 she published her popular memoirs, Reminiscences. She continued to write until her death.
In 1881, Howe was elected president of the Association for the Advancement of Women. Around the same time, Howe went on a speaking tour of the Pacific coast, and founded the Century Club of San Francisco. In 1890, she helped found the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, to reaffirm the Christian values of frugality and moderation. From 1891-1893, she served as president for the second time of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association. Until her death, she was president of the New England Woman Suffrage Association. From 1893-1898 she directed the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and headed the Massachusetts Federation of Women’s Clubs. In 1908 Julia was the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a society; its goal is to "foster, assist, and sustain excellence" in American literature, music, and art.
Julia Ward Howe’s accomplishments mostly reside in her contribution to women’s rights. She laid the foundation for women’s rights groups both in her own home and in the public eye. Howe died of pneumonia October 17, 1910, at her home, Oak Glen, in Portsmouth, Rhode Island at the age of 91. She is buried in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At her memorial service approximately 4,000 individuals sang “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as a sign of respect as it was the custom to sing that song at each of Julia’s speaking engagements.
The Julia Ward Howe School of Excellence in Chicago's Austin community is named in her honor.
The Howe neighborhood in Minneapolis, MN was named for her.
The Julia Ward Howe Academics Plus Elementary School in Philadelphia was named in her honor in 1913. It celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2013-14.
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