They Persisted: Celebrate Women Authors of the 19th Century

March is Women’s History Month, and this year, we’re going to take a closer look at some of the HMH authors who found their voices while involved in the political and literary movements of their time. They ultimately put pen to paper to express their resistance to the status quo.

HMH traces its corporate lineage back to 1832, when William Ticknor and John Allen bought The Old Corner Bookstore in Boston’s Downtown Crossing neighborhood and began to publish a few books. That period of U.S. history was dominated by highly charged debates about slavery, with a strong Abolitionist presence in Boston and other areas of the North. In 1833, Allen and Ticknor published the first American book to call for the immediate emancipation of slaves and full racial equality, and it was written by a woman: An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans by Lydia Maria Child.

Lydia Maria Child

Child’s book was distributed widely and read by thousands; it’s an important moment in both U.S. and women’s history, as well as the history of using the written word to bring about change. An Appeal was more than just opinion; Child conducted a complete analysis of race and slavery from several perspectives: historical, political, economic, legal, and moral. She not only denounced slavery as it existed in the Southern states but also condemned the Northern states for their racial prejudice. One point in her book that particularly angered most of her readers was her belief that marriage between races was completely normal and acceptable.

In 1833, Child was 31 years old and had been writing for several years. She was a journalist and a novelist, often writing children’s stories or advice articles for women. A few years earlier, in 1826, she founded a children’s magazine called Juvenile Miscellany and in 1829, she had written The Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy published by Carter & Hendee, the people from whom Ticknor and Allen purchased the Old Corner Bookstore and its business. 

Her 1833 publication of An Appeal cost her dearly. She lost subscribers to her magazine by the hundreds and was ultimately forced to close it. Newspapers no longer took her advice articles and her income plummeted, but still she continued to fight and write. In 1840, she became editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, a weekly newspaper put out by the American Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1833 by William Lloyd Garrison. She also broadened the scope of her fight, advocating for women’s rights and Native American rights, and she continued to publish books and stories with Ticknor and Fields as well as other publishers.  

In 1844, Child published a poem officially titled "The New-England Boy's Song About Thanksgiving Day," which is more often referred to as “Over the River and Through the Wood” and is probably her best known work today. But I urge you not to pigeon-hole Child as just a cozy New England poet; she was a social justice activist and feminist until the day she died.

Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe was also an Abolitionist as well as a women’s rights activist and HMH author.  

She was married to Samuel Gridley Howe, a doctor who founded the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. He was also an Abolitionist but was unable to make the connection to women’s rights and believed that his wife should not have a writing career or any life apart from their home and children. 

Luckily, Julia paid no attention to that. However, she did publish her first book, Passion-Flowers (1854), anonymously because her husband had also submitted a manuscript to Ticknor & Fields that had been rejected, and the story goes that she didn’t want to further annoy him. Another reason she may have published it anonymously is because several of the poems disclose how awful her marriage was and her ambivalent feelings about motherhood. After Passion-Flowers, she published one more anonymous book of poems, and then she began using her own name on her books. She also wrote for the Abolitionist newspaper The Commonwealth, alongside her husband.  

In 1861, while visiting Washington, D.C., Howe took a side trip to a Civil War Union camp and heard the soldiers singing a song about John Brown. She was so inspired by the event that she penned the poem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” After the war, Howe became active in women’s rights and in 1868 helped establish the New England Woman Suffrage Association. She went on to work with the American Woman Suffrage Association and gave lectures around the country for the cause.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe is the most famous Abolitionist writer in the HMH family, and probably the country.

Her 1852 book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was published by the Boston publishing company JP Jewett, which was bought up by Ticknor & Fields after Jewett went bankrupt in the panic of 1857. Houghton Mifflin continued to publish many different editions of the book for years, including the “edition de luxe” (at right) produced in 1891 with a suede cover and green satin end papers, and a cover designed by another great HMH woman, Sarah Wyman Whitman.

It has never been proven, but the story goes that upon meeting Stowe in 1862, Abraham Lincoln said, “So this is the little lady who started this Great War.” Stowe’s book was immensely popular; it might seem a little stilted today, but her conversational style and her focus on individuals and their stories inspired readers in ways that others had not. It galvanized people against slavery and the recently passed Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and certainly contributed to the escalation of forces, which inevitably led to the Civil War.

Stowe continued to write novels and stories for children, all of which were published by Ticknor & Fields, then Hurd & Houghton, and finally Houghton Mifflin. Unlike Lydia Maria Child and Julia Ward Howe, Stowe did not fight for women’s rights as well, but despite that, all three of these women are great examples of female authors worthy of celebration for their resistance and persistence in the name of what was right.

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Want to further immerse your students in history? Learn more about the HMH Social Studies program for students in Grades 6–12.

This blog post was updated in February 2019.