Julia Ward came of a well-to-do family and was educated privately. In 1843 she married educator Samuel Gridley Howe and took up residence in Boston. Always of a literary bent, she published her first volume of poetry, Passion Flowers, in 1854; this and subsequent works—including a poetry collection, Words for the Hour (1857), a play, Leonora; or, the World’s Own, produced in 1857, and A Trip to Cuba (1860)—had little success.
For a while Howe and her husband published the Commonwealth, an abolitionist newspaper, but for the most part he kept her out of his affairs and strongly opposed her involving herself in any sort of public life. In February 1862 The Atlantic Monthly published her poem “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to be set to an old folk tune also used for “John Brown’s Body.” The song, written during a visit to an army camp near Washington, D.C., in 1861, became the semiofficial Civil War song of the Union Army, and Howe became famous.
After the war Howe involved herself in the woman suffrage movement. In 1868 she helped form and was elected the first president of the New England Woman Suffrage Association, an office she held until 1877, and from 1869 she took a leading role in the American Woman Suffrage Association. She helped found the New England Women’s Club in 1868 and succeeded Caroline M. Severance as its president in 1871. She was later active in the General Federation of Women’s Clubs International. She also took up the cause of peace and in 1870 published her “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World,” a call for an international conference of women on the subject of peace. In 1871 she became first president of the American branch of the Woman’s International Peace Association.
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Howe continued to write throughout her life, publishing travel books, poetry, collections of essays, and biographies. She founded a short-lived literary journal, Northern Lights, in 1867 and was a founder in 1870 and an editor for 20 years thereafter of the Woman’s Journal. She was a frequent traveler until extreme old age. She was again president of the New England Woman Suffrage Association from 1893 to 1910. In 1908 she became the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was an American public institution by the time of her death. Of her children, the best known was the writer Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards.