Everyone is busy this time of year, but women - who still do the majority of shopping, cooking, and cleaning - have their hands particularly full. In most families, Mom organized the family get-together, made the Thanksgiving turkey, and woke up early for Black Friday shopping. Now Mom will turn to Christmas preparations: decorating, gift wrapping, and party planning.
This tradition has a long pedigree. Indeed, an overlooked fact about Thanksgiving is that a woman played a leading role in making it a national holiday.
Sarah Josepha Hale, the 40-year editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, wrote letters to five U.S. presidents asking them to establish a national holiday for giving thanks. Hale's vision of Thanksgiving lives on today.
Hale lived in a time when Americans were increasingly residing in places not their birthplace. Hale hoped Thanksgiving would be an occasion for Americans to return to their homeland, be with their families, experience the rural countryside and see God's bountiful blessings as well as taste them.
She saw Thanksgiving as a time to experience the joys of being at home. As editor of a ladies' magazine, Hale put great emphasis on the decorating and homemaking that were necessary to make Thanksgiving a cozy holiday. She believed in the home as the woman's sphere, where women could display their excellent cooking and decorating skills.
Thanksgiving wasn't Hale's only contribution to our country. Although not a suffragette, she was a pioneer for American women in many ways. Hale was an educated woman living in the 1800's - a relative rarity. She was a strong believer in women's education and property rights, and helped found Vassar College for women.
She had great American pride and tried to maximize the number of articles in her publications that were authored by Americans (and minimize those written by Brits). She fought to preserve Mount Vernon and construct the Bunker Hill monument.
Hale was a devoted Christian, and although her husband died only nine years after they married, the two managed to have five children together, and Hale dressed in black for the rest of her life in mourning. Hale opposed slavery, desired national unity, and believed that in her politically polarized time, it was the duty and honor of the women of our nation to be conservers of morality, peace and good-will to others.
Sarah Hale is a model that's worth keeping in mind in the current political climate. Today, many lament that women don’t hold 50 percent of the seats in Congress and account for too few of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
Yet as Hale understood, women can be instrumental in shaping the country outside of their direct participation in government or the workforce.
Much has changed since Sarah Hale’s time. Women are now more likely than men to attain a college degree. Women have entered the workforce in increasing numbers, and today account for a majority of professional and managerial workers. In 2010, more women ran for public office than ever before in our nation’s history. It's commonplace to see women holding some of the highest positions in the land—from Secretary of State to Governor or Senator—and Americans generally realize that it's just a matter of time before we have the first woman in the White House.
Yet women's influence is under-estimated if you fixate solely on the tally of statistics of how many women have this title or hold that elected office. The grassroots Tea Party movement, arguably the most important political movement in a generation, has been largely led by women. Women like Sarah Palin, though currently not holding a seat or office in government, garner constant media attention, draw rock-star crowds, and help serve as party king-makers.
And while it can be easy to belittle in today's high-powered times, American women's greatest influence remains in the home. A growing number of households are officially headed by women, and regardless of marital status, women still make the vast majority of consumption decisions and allocate the family budget. They care for their parents and often the parents of their spouse, and they take on the lion’s share of childrearing duties. In doing so, they assume the responsibility of instilling moral values in the next generation.
This role, although derided by many modern feminists as powerless and low, will have the most lasting impact on our nation.
This holiday season, we can all give thanks for the guidance of great American women in our history - like Sarah Hale - who are often under-celebrated for their contributions, but who nonetheless have shaped the direction of our country.
And we can more keenly appreciate the influence of similarly situated American women today, who quietly and thanklessly continue to feed our families, make our homes, vote, write and build political coalitions, and in so doing, shape our nation.