A Woman Coined the Term Thanksgiving

A Woman Coined the Term Thanksgiving

As with so many pieces of our history, the true story of Thanksgiving is credited to the efforts of a woman – a 19th century writer: Sarah Josepha Buell Hale. Although she is more commonly known for authoring “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Hale worked to lobby then-President Abraham Lincoln to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. 

A woman who today would be considered a feminist, Hale was born in New Hampshire to parents who had the then-not-so-common belief that girls should be educated equally to boys. She was home schooled, married at age 24 and widowed at age 35 – a single mother to 5 children. Hale was an accomplished writer who published poetry before a novel, and she helped found the American Ladies Magazine to promote women’s issues.

In 1837 she was offered a job as editor of a tremendously popular magazine entitled Godey’s Lady’s Book – an influential tome instructing women on dress, cooking, and raising a family. The magazine became one of the most influential periodicals in the country.

According to the website All That’s Interesting: Sarah Hale also used her magazine to promote specific causes. She believed strongly in women’s education and encouraged mothers to teach their daughters alongside their sons. Additionally, the magazine argued for the abolition of slavery in the years before the Civil War.

Hale’s activism extended beyond the magazine. Committed to preserving history, Sarah Hale raised money to maintain historic sites, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon home.

When the Bunker Hill Monument in Massachusetts ran short on funds, Hale stepped in. Using her magazine and a local network of women in Boston, Hale raisedmore than $40,000 through donations and the Bunker Hill Monument Fair. Against the objection of men who implied that women were stealing from their households by making donations, Hale and other women activists transformed the monument into a reality.

Annually celebrating Thanksgiving was a fall tradition starting with the American Revolution (Congress proclaimed several days of thanks to honor military victories). Hale’s experience in celebrating thanks led her to pen the novel Northwood: A Tale of New England, dedicated an entire chapter to the Thanksgiving holiday. She lobbied local and federal leaders to legislate a national day of thanks in November, believing that it would help reduce growing divisions* between the north and south; by 1854, over 30 states and US territories dedicated a day for celebration of Thanksgiving, but still there was no national holiday.

After a number of Civil War battles including the Battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln called for a day of thanks in April 1862, prompting Hale to write to both President Lincoln and secretary of state to declare a national day of “Thanksgiving,” She believed that only the president had the power to create a permanent national holiday. 

Within a week, the official proclamation to name Thanksgiving a national holiday on the final Thursday of November was drafted, matched with the hope it would “heal the wounds of the nation” caused by the war. Although in 1939 President Franklin Roosevelt briefly moved the holiday a week earlier to extend the Christmas shopping season during the Great Depression, he reversed this decision in the fall of 1941, and Congress fixed Thanksgiving as a national holiday on the 4th Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving should be a unifying, patriotic holiday, according to Hale. Because of her views, Hale was likely happy to let Lincoln take public credit for the national holiday while she secretly influenced him behind the scenes.