"A Woman's Work." New-York Tribune, 17 July 17 1874.

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"A Woman's Work." New-York Tribune, 17 July 17 1874.


"A Woman's Work"

Many years ago, Margaret Fuller,[1] in her “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” called attention to the work and position of a certain Mrs. Sarah Hanna (then bearing her maiden name[2]) as among the hopeful signs of woman’s progress. The occasion which prompted her notice was a visit paid by ex-President John Quincy Adams to a school for girls, under the care of this lady, in a pretty village in Western Pennsylvania. It was long before the time when a woman, without trampling all conventional rules, could lecture or speak as freely as a man in public. It was the time when one of our foremost thinkers presented the Clytie as the type of a perfect woman. ‘Observe that the hair covers the forehead down to the eyebrows,’ said he. ‘The intellect is there; but—it is veiled of men.’[3] This teacher in the quiet little town had already determined to do what lay in her power towards unveiling the hidden intellect. Having something to say to her guest on the subject of her life’s work, she said it, and in public, in a few well chosen, modest words, strong in sound common sense.

Margaret Fuller recognized both the sense and the prophecy which its utterance at that time conveyed. She would have been quick also to recognize the peculiar lesson embodied in the future work of this woman; and we think this work worthy of mention here because it differs from that approved and sought after by the majority of women now, in its quiet and sturdy usefulness, without any straining after dramatic effect. She knew, when choosing her work, apparently what few women care to know, precisely what she could and could not do. She was not meant to be an artist or an author, or even a teacher par excellence; but she had an exceptional executive ability, and a peculiar fitness for managing and controlling the young. She made her work therefore the founding and oversight of schools, having under her charge at one time three large and successful seminaries for girls. She has educated and sent out hundreds of teachers, and wives and mothers in unnumbered happy homes cherish her grateful affection.[4] The so-called progressive reformers would claim no doubt that such training as here was calculated to increase the number of Domestic Women in the country; but in one point her teaching was more broad and catholic than their own. Long ago, before humanitarian doctrines became the fashion, her pupils were brought close to every species of suffering in any part of the world which they could help to relieve. Whether it was the Southern slave, the famine-wasted Frenchman or Hindoo, or the needy soldier in Federal or Confederate prison, she made them real men and brothers to her girls—not vague ideas. In her way—not the newest or most scientific way, perhaps—she tried to teach these women whom she sent out into the world a sincere love for God and their fellow-man.

Next week, as we learn, she gives up the work which she began in early youth, and from all parts of the country her scholars are going back to say farewell to her. It has been a quiet, undramatic life, brought to a quiet, undramatic close, and we should have no right to drag it before the public were it not to hint to other women how large and wholesome may be the result of a noiseless private life when it is vitalized by common sense, sincerity, and integrity to the service of the Great Master.


1. Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), journalist, author, editor, and women’s rights advocate.

2. Sarah Foster Hanna was principal of the Washington Female Seminary which RHD had attended in the 1840s; this commemoration was for Hanna's retirement.

3. Source is unknown.

4. The sentences from here to the end of the paragraph were excised from the Commemorative and Farewell Reunion, of the Graduates and Teachers of Washington Female Seminary in Honor of Mrs. Sarah R Hanna, June 25th, 1874 (Pittsburgh: Blackwell and Marthens, 1874), 6-7, which otherwise reprinted the article in its entirety.


S. M. Harris



S. M. Harris, “"A Woman's Work." New-York Tribune, 17 July 17 1874.,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed February 7, 2023, https://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/81.

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