Reclaiming the Feminist Beginnings of America’s Thanksgiving by Michele Stopera Freyhauf

Freyhauf, Feminism, Religion, Durham, Old Testament, Blogger, Bible, Gender, Violence, Ursuline, John CarrollFor those who are unaware of my research focus and methodology, I try to use history to reconstruct or reclaim the feminine voice through more of an exegetical lens rather than an eisegetical or ideological lens. When it comes to Thanksgiving, I have yet another opportunity to restore credit to or at least bring visibility back to a woman who fought for Thanksgiving to be recognized as a national holiday on the last Thursday of November. Her works, though plentiful and sometimes known only by title, are largely forgotten to history; Sarah Josepha Buell Hale (1788-1879) is responsible for Thanksgiving becoming a national holiday in the United States.

Certainly, I do not have to go into the disparity that befell women during the 1800’s when it came to education and overall fundamental rights – that is a history with which we are all well familiar. Hale was educated through her brother, Horatio Gates Buell, who shared his education while attending Dartmouth College and “seemed very unwilling that [Hale] should be deprived of all his collegiate advantages,” and through her husband, David Hale, a lawyer who helped her cultivate her writing skills in the evenings. They even established a small literary club with their friends that allowed her to write. Hale was left a widow at a very young age with five children, the oldest age 7. Hale, like so many women during that time period, had to find a way to support herself and her family.

Sarah Josepha Buell Hale

Sarah Josepha Buell Hale

After authoring a book of poems with her sister-in-law, The Genius of Oblivion and Other Original Poems, Hale, in 1827, published her first novel called Northwood – a book published the same year as Uncle Tom’s Cabin that also challenged slavery. From fame gained through this novel, Hale obtained a job as an editor of a women’s magazine, Ladies Book (later Godey’s Ladies Book then American Ladies Magazine), where she worked for about 40 years. She wrote about half of the material contained in the magazines, as a means of helping to educated women. Hale helped to discover and promote such authors as Edger Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lydia Maria Child, Catherine Sedgwick, Lucretia Mott, Emma Willard, Susan B. Anthony, Henry David Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

She is credited for helping to establish Vassar College for women and wrote the familiar child’s poem “Mary had a Little Lamb” in 1830 (Poems for Our Children, republished in Juvenile Miscellany), Traits of American Life, which contained the story of “The Thanksgiving of the Heart:”

Our good ancestors were wise, even in their mirth. We have a standing proof of this in the season they chose for the celebration of our annual festival, the Thanksgiving. The funeral-faced month of November is thus made to wear a garland of joy… There is a deep moral influence in these periodic seasons of rejoicing, in which a whole community participates. They bring out, and together, as it were, the best sympathies of our nature. The rich contemplate the enjoyments of the poor with complacency, and the poor regard the entertainments of the rich without envy, because all are privileged to be happy in their own way.

Historically, Thanksgiving was something often celebrated in England; not one time of year, but periodically. Days of thanksgiving were often celebrated with success or the end of something. This, with obvious reasoning, carried over to colonial America. Examples of thanksgiving celebrations include the end of the drought in 1630, which was celebrated July 30th and George Washington and the Continental Congress celebrating the American victory at Saratoga in 1777, as well as, the establishment of a new national government under the Constitution in 1789. A few more national thanksgivings were celebrated on an ad hoc basis during early American history, until Thomas Jefferson made no official observance of the holiday. Eventually, under James Madison, the ad hoc celebrations ceased entirely in 1815.

For 17 years, Hale, a prolific letter writer, worked hard to have Thanksgiving established as a national holiday.

 Might [Thanksgiving], without inconvenience, be observed on the same day of November, say the last Thursday in the month, throughout all New England; and also in our sister states, who have engrafted it upon their social system. It would then have a national character, which would, eventually, induce all the states to join in the commemoration of ‘in-gathering,’ which it celebrates. It is a festival which will never become obsolete, for it cherishes the best affections of the heart – the social and domestic ties. It calls together the dispersed members of the family circle, and brings plenty, joy, and gladness to the dwellings of the poor and lowly. (1837)

In 1847, the governor of New Hampshire was the first to appoint Thanksgiving as an annual national holiday. With that victory, Hale called on the governors of all the states to appoint that day, the 25th of November as a day of Thanksgiving – a day where the whole of the land would rejoice together. She wrote essays and letters lobbying five presidents and a multitude of governors to declare the last Thursday of November as a national holiday.

The last Thursday of November…. harvests of all kinds are gathered in – summer travelers have returned to their homes – – the diseases that, during summer and early autumn, often afflict some portions of our country, have ceased, and all are prepared to enjoy a day of Thanksgiving. (1851)

Thanksgiving, in her eyes, was to be holiday to give thanks for national, state, and familial blessings.

It would be better to have the day so fixed by the expression of public sentiment that no discord would be possible, but from Maine to Mexico, from Plymouth Rock to Sunset Sea, the hymn of thanksgiving should be simultaneously raised…” (1854)

In 1863, she promoted the cause for a national holiday through an editorial consisting of rhetorical questions:

Would it not be of great advantage, socially, nationally, religious, to have the DAY of our American Thanksgiving positively settled? Putting aside the sectional feelings and local incidents that might be urged by any single State or isolated Territory that desired to choose its own time, would it not be more noble, more truly American, to become nationally in unity when we offer to God our tribute of joy and gratitude for the blessings of the year?

It was about the time that the Civil War turned in favor of the North, Hale once again wrote to Lincoln and stated that proclaiming Thanksgiving as a national holiday would be perceived as an act of national unification.

 As the President of the United States has the power of appointments for the District of Columbia and the Territories…could he not, with right as well as duty, issue his proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving for all the above classes of persons? And would it not be fitting and patriotic for him to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.” (28 September 1863)

On the 3rd of October 1863, President Abraham Lincoln made a proclamation of Thanksgiving:

…it has seemed to me fit and proper that they [the gracious gifts of God] should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving.

Then on the 20th of October 1864, then President Abraham Lincoln issued another Proclamation:

[God] has largely augmented our free population by emancipation and by immigration, while He has opened to us new sources of wealth and has crowned the labor of our workingmen in every department of industry with abundant rewards. Moreover, He has been pleased to animate and inspire our minds and hearts with fortitude, courage, and resolution sufficient for the great trial of civil war into which we have been brought by our adherence as a nation to the cause of freedom and humanity, and to afford to us reasonable hopes of an ultimate and happy deliverance from all our dangers and afflictions:

Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do hereby appoint and set apart the last Thursday in November next as a day which I desire to be observed by all my fellow-citizens, wherever they may then be, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe. And I do further recommend to my fellow-citizens aforesaid that on that occasion they do reverently humble themselves in the dust and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers and supplications to the Great Disposer of Events for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land which it has pleased Him to assign as a dwelling place for ourselves and for our posterity throughout all generations.

For the next eight decades of American history, Thanksgiving was celebrated annually, even as it moved from the end of November to the beginning of December  and from president to president. The House of Representatives and the Senate finally codified Thanksgiving as a national holiday and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed this into law on the 26th day of December 1941.

Today, recognizing that our modern Thanksgiving myth is nothing more than an invention and construction written in American history books, might we approach Thanksgiving as Hale first intended it at its most fundamental level – as a community meal, whatever that meal may consist of, with thankful hearts for our many blessings, and prayers for the good fortune of all, no matter socioeconomic status? Certainly it is time to focus on the theme of togetherness and community and finally dispense with the myths and sanitized historical constructs of the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock.

If I may be so bold as to conclude this post with my own proposal, I would add my own feminist spin on this intention – might we, in this time of turmoil, protest, and war, seek to make Thanksgiving representative of community and togetherness rooted in the feminist ideal of eradicating all -isms? Might Thanksgiving be a meal we share at the universe’s table without prejudice, bias, or anger?


Michele Stopera Freyhauf is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and a Member of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University as well as an Instructor at John Carroll University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Michele has an M. A. in Theology and Religious Studies from John Carroll University, and did post-graduate work at the University of Akron in the area of History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality. She is also a Member-at-Large on the Student Advisory Board for the Society of Biblical Literature and the student representative on the Board for Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society (EGLBS). Michele is a feminist scholar, activist, and author of several articles including “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia” and lectured during the Commission for the Status of Women at the United Nations (2013 and 2014). She also wrote “The Catholic Church and Social Media: Embracing [Fighting] a Feminist Ideological Theo-Ethical Discourse and Discursive Activism” that appears in the recently released book, Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century: Technology, Dialogue, and Expanding Borders, edited by Gina Messina-Dysert and Rosemary Radford Ruether. Michele can be followed on Twitter @msfreyhauf and @biblicalfem. Her website can be accessed here and is visible on other social media sites like LinkedIn and Google+.

Categories: Ancestors, Feminism, Folklore, General, Herstory, holiday, Myth, Uncategorized, Women and Community, Women's Agency, Women's Rights, Women's Voices

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9 replies

  1. How interesting Michelle. I am pleased to learn that Sarah Buell Hale and Lincoln saw Thanksgiving more as a general day of in-gathering of crops and family to give thanks for God or nature’s bounty than as a re-enactment of “the first” thanksgiving of the pilgrim immigrants and the Indians they were soon to be engaged in slaughtering in the Pequot War.

    The quotes from Lincoln are a stark and for me sad reminder of how he suffered in light of his belief in divine omnipotence in history, which led him to believe that God caused and endorsed the enormous suffering of the Civil War. I think process philosophy’s notion that God is omnipresent but not omnipotent would have given him a great deal more comfort. Indeed Lincoln’s notion of God’s omnipotence seemed to have led him to doubt God’s loving presence. Siggghhh.


  2. Michele, thank you so much for this. I adore learning something new and this has expanded my experience of Thanksgiving. Being overseas for this holiday gives me an interesting perspective. We carve this day out of the average routine of the culture we current live within– it takes effort. But I believe it is worth it.

    I love Thanksgiving. It’s pretty much my favorite holiday, actually. I love the food, the ritual of preparation, the connection with tradition, the pause in the rising Christmas chaos to gather with friends & family in a joyful, sacred space, & the emphasis on gratitude- one of my guiding spiritual principles. I also love its complexity. I love its lack of easy answers. I love that in this age, it requires us to discuss our cultural myths and how they do or do not serve us moving forward. I love that it requires us to acknowledge the existence of the dark– to say yes, I do see through my gratitude the change- the light- our world still desperately needs. In the gratitude I have for my home & my feast, I see that there are those who are not home, do not have a home, or struggle to feed those who live in their home. In the gratitude I have for my safety & freedom, I see that there are those who cannot count on a peaceful life or self-determination. In the gratitude for all that my wild, precious life holds, I see the call to do whatever small service I can during that life to help those who struggle. For the opportunity to help this world do better, I am grateful. All this and more is why I laugh and cry this day. It is the alchemy of Thanksgiving. And no matter where in the world I may be living, I will continue to celebrate it every year, without fail.

    May the blessings of Thanksgiving, however you define them, be with all of my fellow Americans.


  3. Pondering your methodological claim… Are you saying that scholarship can be objective, not rooted in any standpoint at all? Are you saying that patriarchal scholarship is based on ideology or eisegesis? Or are you setting yourself apart from other feminists who work from acknowledged standpoints–for example the standpoint of one who recognizes that women’s history has not only not been told, but that it has been systematically deemed unimportant? Would such a standpoint be ideological or simply factual, and how do we tell the difference?


  4. I love the idea of “community meal” in your proposal at the end of your post. Throughout my work in human services I have found this practice of a “community meal” to be a particularly powerful one. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the most popular and social-isolation-reducing activity in many senior centers is the daily congregate lunch or that the tradition of a weekly community dinner in a nearby town has succeeded for years in bringing diverse members of the community together who might otherwise have never spoken to each other. And, every women’s circle I’ve ever been in always seemed to find sisterhood in sharing food as part of the meetings. Thank you for this very thought-provoking post!


  5. Thank you for this. I had always thought that Pres. Roosevelt decreed Thanksgiving to be the fourth Thursday in November to coincide with the football season (because it’s obviously well post-harvest in most of the US). It’s fascinating to learn that the tradition goes much further back than that and that the date was chosen because “harvests of all kinds are gathered in – summer travelers have returned to their homes – – the diseases that, during summer and early autumn, often afflict some portions of our country, have ceased.” I understand celebrating the leisure when the food supply is secure, and everyone is at home, but wonder what diseases she had in mind.


  6. I’ve been researching and illustrating women’s antique quilt designs online for some time now and with much delight. Many of them exceedingly intricate geometrically and exquisite, with most handed down from quilter to quilter without copyright. An exception for sources was Godey’s Lady’s Book which supplied patterns for a variety of women’s arts. The magazine was exceedingly successful under Sarah J. Hale’s command apparently, claiming more than 150,000 subscriptions at a cost of $3 a year — at that time quite expensive. There is a copy of Hale’s letter to Abraham Lincoln online at Wikipedia at the Sarah Josepha Hale page there.


  7. Reblogged this on Jessica A Bruno (waybeyondfedup).



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