By Elizabeth Hemmerdinger

I’ve always thrown myself into Thanksgiving. You can see in the photo below, from my turn as a Pilgrim in the 1956 sixth grade pageant at Hunter College Elementary School in New York City. Long, long ago. Might as well have been the first Thanksgiving ever. As a playwright I can tell you, I’ve got the lead in the scene – the others are just villagers. I don’t think I’m accused of being a witch; I think I would have remembered that.

I don’t remember the script, but I remember my mother toiling over the costume design. I love the story of the Pilgrims and the Puritans who left their homes to surrender to the tempestuous seas and disinterested terra incognita in the name of freedom. Me, I’d sell my soul for flannel pj’s, a heating pad, and a really good book on a damp November night.

Segue to college: Vassar, in the mid sixties. In Poughkeepsie, most of us were girls benighted; and not for the first time in American history. I didn’t much care for Vassar: All those girls. The din in the dining room was a nightly nightmare to me. Cold, dark nights in the countryside. No boys. Lousy food. Cattle calls known as Mixers. Few people like me. But I know I was supposed to be thankful, as one of the chosen at a Seven Sisters school.

Long story short, my senior thesis was a historical play about the founding of Vassar. The apparent antagonist was Matthew Vassar’s only heir, crazed with watching his uncle’s wealth flooding into the 1864 weird project — creating an institution of higher learning for girls, who were universally under-educated.  But in short order, schools across the continent were grooming girls for college-level work. Poor, despairing Matthew Junior, I had him call the college “the bearded lady.” But the more interesting antagonist, the delicious pain in the neck, was the woman without whom we would not have today’s holiday, as many have noted this week. Sarah Josepha Buell Hale: I loved her dearly. 

Sarah was born in 1788, when girls were afforded little in the way of education beyond animal husbandry, but she studied everything her brother learned at Dartmouth. At eighteen, when it wasn’t even a possibility for a woman to become a teacher, Sarah Buell set up a “dame” school. At twenty-one she married David Hale. Two weeks before the birth of their fifth child, David died suddenly. The young widow tried her hand at a millinery business but preferred reading – and writing.

First published was a book of poems and then, in 1827, a successful novel, “Northwood: A Tale of New England.” In it, she calls for the 40,000 American churches to take up collections for a observance to be called Thanksgiving, with the funds to be used to put an end to slavery in the U.S. She meant for it to be a day of sacrifice and generosity, not just feasting.

This book led to Sarah being hired as the editor of a new medium – a women’s magazine. She moved to Boston to take the helm of “Ladies’ Magazine,” and used this marvelous forum as a bully pulpit for own avant guard ideas, including medical education and training for women, encouraging women to write and search for way to become engaged in their communities, and to promote American writers. In short order the magazine was renamed “American Ladies’ Magazine.” Oh, and while she was in Boston, Hale founded the Seaman’s Society, which was dedicated to housing, feeding, and teaching job skills to poor women. She was also instrumental in the founding of the Emma Willard School.

Louis Godey, who published a competing magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, in Philadelphia, soon absorbed Sarah’s publication into his and named her editor–editress, as she preferred to be called. She was very displeased that her publisher ran advertisements for the latest fashions. She advocated for the abolition of cruel cinched-waist corsets that were literally killing those women who were slaves to fashion by constricting their organs and deforming their skeletons.

Sarah Josepha Hale never gave up on her notion of Thanksgiving. In fact, she worked for forty years, cajoling, imploring and berating politicians, including five presidents. Finally, in 1864, she persuaded President Lincoln to declare an annual day of Thanksgiving.

Hale also had great influence over a wealthy man, Matthew Vassar, who looking for a way to build a monument to himself in his lifetime. He wanted the pleasure of seeing that his fortune was well used while he could enjoy the process. “Vassar’s Female College” he called it. He bought a large fairground and built an exceedingly impressive building in the middle of the race course.

Though she was pleased with Matthew Vassar, Hale continued to push the envelop.  She hounded Vassar to remove the word “Female,” because she felt it associated the students with animals, not women. He complied.  Then she hounded the Vassar to hire women to teach; which he did. And then she campaigned, again in print, for him to pay the women teachers the same amount as men, which, eventually, he did. At least he paid Maria Mitchell, the world-reknowned astronomer, a sum equal to some of the men. These conflicts are the story of my thesis play, “Idiots and Women.”

Frankly, I am thankful that I still remember not only the facts, but the fact that I wrote the thing. I spent long, delicious hours in the archives of the wonderful library, reverently handling all their original letters. I’m sure no one is allowed to touch them today.

I only liked my time at Vassar when I was writing and reading. And now, like her, it occurs to me, I have joined with wonderful women to write for women, to encourage new writers to add their voices, and to spread sound medical information as we support the work of Dr. Pat. So many parallels. We’ve come a long way, and I’m thankful for the chance to be part of the continuum.

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