Thanksgiving, like most American holidays, has been depicted in masculine terms: The historic vision of colonial New Englander Miles Standish, with musket in one hand and a ''tom'' turkey in the other, comes to mind. In fact the formal Thanksgiving celebrated in late November is the accomplishment of one woman, Sarah Josepha Hale, who campaigned long and hard for the holiday, mostly from Philadelphia.
Mrs. Hale was not born in the city of brotherly love. A New Englander, she grew up in the years following the end of the American Revolution. In an age when men were the only recipients of a formal education, she received some intellectual rudiments from her mother and from a brother who attended Dartmouth. At the age of 25, she married David Hale, a lawyer, and in quick succession bore five children. When her husband suddenly died just eight years after her marriage, Mrs. Hale was faced with the bleakest financial prospects for her family.
So she developed that aspect of her abilities that she felt had both promise and personal enjoyment - writing - a career that was rock-strewn for a woman, in large part because it was identified with the production of feminist literature. Mrs. Hale was no feminist, as illustrated by the poetry and novel that she published in the early 1820s. But she persevered in her writing, finally acquiring in 1828 a secure position as editor of Ladies Magazine, published in Boston.
Ultimately renamed Godey's Lady's Book after a new purchaser and with its headquarters removed to Philadelphia, the magazine bore Mrs. Hale's imprint for nearly 50 years until her death in 1879. In fact, for several years she wrote much of its material and with sufficient skill so as to attract an enormous circulation of 150,000. Godey's Lady's Book was a fashion magazine, but in spite of numerous illustrations had room for commentary that reflected the editor's views.
Although Mrs. Hale campaigned, first and foremost, in such columns for the better education of females, her concern for a national day of thanksgiving was manifest for three and a half decades. And in more than columns but in letters to governors and presidents of the United States. Her campaign arose, in part, as a reflection of the blessings her own life revealed and because religious advocacy was perceived at the time to be a woman's role, too feminine for men, especially as the nation became embroiled in a Civil War.
In a September 1863 editorial, Mrs. Hale wrote: ''. . . would it not be more noble, more truly American, to become national in unity when we offer to God our tribute of joy and gratitude for the blessings of the year?'' And President Abraham Lincoln, whose Union forces had shortly before participated in the critical and harrowing turning point, the Battle of Gettysburg, was moved by the editorial and issued on Oct. 3 a proclamation establishing the November holiday. The last Thursday in the month would be observed as Thanksgiving, with only minor deviations, from 1863 until recent decades.
To be sure, Mrs. Hale's successful campaign would not immortalize her. But that was neither her goal nor style. A national day of Thanksgiving was simply American, she felt, and its being taken for granted today is testimony to the selfless nature of her act.