Biography of Lucy Stone, Abolitionist and Women's Rights Reformer

Lucy Stone, circa 1865

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Lucy Stone (August 13, 1818–October 18, 1893) was the first woman in Massachusetts to earn a college degree and the first woman in the United States to keep her own name after marriage. While she started out on the radical edge of women's rights at the beginning of her speaking and writing career, she's usually described as a leader of the conservative wing of the suffrage movement in her later years. The woman whose speech in 1850 converted Susan B. Anthony to the suffrage cause later disagreed with Anthony over strategy and tactics, splitting the suffrage movement into two major branches after the Civil War.

Fast Facts: Lucy Stone

  • Known For: A major figure in the abolitionist and women's rights movements of the 1800s
  • Born: August 13, 1818 in West Brookfield, Massachusetts
  • Parents: Hannah Matthews and Francis Stone
  • Died: October 18, 1893 in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Education: Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Oberlin College
  • Awards and Honors: Inducted into National Women's Hall of Fame; the subject of a U.S. postal stamp; statue placed in Massachusetts State House; featured in the Boston Women's Heritage Trail
  • Spouse(s): Henry Browne Blackwell
  • Children: Alice Stone Blackwell
  • Notable Quote: "I believe that the influence of woman will save the country before every other power."

Early Life

Lucy Stone was born on August 13, 1818, on her family's Massachusetts farm in West Brookfield. She was the eighth of nine children, and as she grew up, she watched as her father ruled the household, and his wife, by "divine right." Disturbed when her mother had to beg her father for money, she was also unhappy with the lack of support in her family for her education. She was faster at learning than her brothers, but they were to be educated while she was not.

She was inspired in her reading by the Grimke sisters, who were abolitionists as well as proponents of women's rights. When the Bible was quoted to her, defending the positions of men and women, she declared that when she grew up, she'd learn Greek and Hebrew so she could correct the mistranslation that she was sure was behind such verses.

Education

Her father would not support her education, so she alternated her own education with teaching to earn enough to continue. She attended several institutions, including Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1839. By age 25 four years later, she had saved enough to fund her first year at Oberlin College in Ohio, the country's first college to admit both women and blacks.

After four years of study at Oberlin College, all the while teaching and doing housework to pay for the costs, Lucy Stone graduated in 1847. She was asked to write a commencement speech for her class, but she refused because someone else would have had to read her speech because women were not allowed, even at Oberlin, to give a public address.

Shortly after Stone, the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree, returned to her home state, she gave her first public speech. The topic was women's rights and she delivered the speech from the pulpit of her brother's Congregational Church in Gardner, Massachusetts. Thirty-six years after she graduated from Oberlin, she was an honored speaker at Oberlin's 50th-anniversary celebration.

The American Anti-Slavery Society

A year after she graduated, Lucy Stone was hired as an organizer for the American Anti-Slavery Society. In this paid position, she traveled and gave speeches on abolition and women's rights.

William Lloyd Garrison, whose ideas were dominant in the Anti-Slavery Society, said of her during her first year of working with the organization, "She is a very superior young woman, and has a soul as free as the air, and is preparing to go forth as a lecturer, particularly in vindication of the rights of women. Her course here has been very firm and independent, and she has caused no small uneasiness in the spirit of sectarianism in the institution."

When her women's rights speeches created too much controversy within the Anti-Slavery Society—some wondered whether she was diminishing her efforts on behalf of the abolition cause—she arranged to separate the two ventures, speaking on weekends on abolition and weekdays on women's rights, and charging admission for the speeches on women's rights. In three years, she earned $7,000 with these talks.

Radical Leadership

Stone's radicalism on both abolition and women's rights brought large crowds. The talks also drew hostility: according to historian Leslie Wheeler, "people tore down the posters advertising her talks, burned pepper in the auditoriums where she spoke, and pelted her with prayer books and other missiles."

Having been convinced by using the Greek and Hebrew she learned at Oberlin that indeed the Biblical proscriptions on women were badly translated, she challenged those rules in churches that she found to be unfair to women. Raised in the Congregational Church, she was unhappy with its refusal to recognize women as voting members of congregations as well as their condemnation of the Grimke sisters for their public speaking. Finally expelled by the Congregationalists for her views and public speaking, she joined with the Unitarians.

In 1850, Stone was a leader in organizing the first national woman's rights convention, held in Worcester, Massachusetts. The 1848 convention in Seneca Falls had been an important and radical move, but the attendees were mostly from the local area. This was the next step.

At the 1850 convention, Lucy Stone's speech is credited with converting Susan B. Anthony to the cause of woman suffrage. A copy of the speech, which was sent to England, inspired John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor to publish "The Enfranchisement of Women." Some years later, she also convinced Julia Ward Howe to adopt women's rights as a cause along with abolition. Frances Willard credited Stone's work with her joining the suffrage cause.

Marriage and Motherhood

Stone had thought of herself as a "free soul" who would not marry; then she met Cincinnati businessman Henry Blackwell in 1853 on one of her speaking tours. Henry was seven years younger than Lucy and courted her for two years. Henry was anti-slavery and pro-women's rights. His eldest sister Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910), became the first woman physician in the United States, while another sister, Emily Blackwell (1826–1910), became a physician as well. Their brother Samuel later married Antoinette Brown (1825–1921), a friend of Lucy Stone's at Oberlin and the first woman ordained as a minister in the United States.

Two years of courtship and friendship convinced Lucy to accept Henry's offer of marriage. Lucy was especially impressed when he rescued a fugitive slave from her owners. She wrote to him, "A wife should no more take her husband's name than he should hers. My name is my identity and must not be lost." Henry agreed with her. "I wish, as a husband, to renounce all the privileges which the law confers upon me, which are not strictly mutual. Surely such a marriage will not degrade you, dearest."

And so, in 1855, Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell married. At the ceremony, Minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson read a statement by the bride and groom, renouncing and protesting the marriage laws of the time, and announcing that she would keep her name. Higginson published the ceremony widely with their permission.

The couple's daughter Alice Stone Blackwell was born in 1857. A son died at birth; Lucy and Henry had no other children. Lucy "retired" for a short period from active touring and public speaking and devoted herself to raising her daughter. The family moved from Cincinnati to New Jersey.

In a letter written to her sister-in-law Antoinette Blackwell on February 20, 1859, Stone wrote,

"...for these years I can only be a mother—no trivial thing, either."

The next year, Stone refused to pay property taxes on her home. She and Henry carefully kept her property in her name, giving her independent income during their marriage. In her statement to the authorities, Lucy Stone protested the "taxation without representation" that women still endured, since women had no vote. The authorities seized some furniture to pay the debt, but the gesture was widely publicized as symbolic on behalf of women's rights.

Split in the Suffrage Movement

Inactive in the suffrage movement during the Civil War, Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell became active again when the war ended and the Fourteenth Amendment was proposed, giving the vote to black men. For the first time, the Constitution would, with this Amendment, mention "male citizens" explicitly. Most woman suffrage activists were outraged. Many saw the possible passage of this Amendment as setting back the cause of woman suffrage.

In 1867, Stone again went on a full lecture tour to Kansas and New York, working for woman suffrage state amendments, trying to work for both black and woman suffrage.

The woman suffrage movement split on this and other strategic grounds. The National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton decided to oppose the Fourteenth Amendment because of the language "male citizen." Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and Henry Blackwell led those who sought to keep the causes of black and woman suffrage together, and in 1869 they and others founded the American Woman Suffrage Association.

For all her radical reputation, Lucy Stone was identified in this later period with the conservative wing of the woman suffrage movement. Other differences in strategy between the two wings included the AWSA's following a strategy of state-by-state suffrage amendments and the NWSA's support of a national constitutional amendment. The AWSA remained largely middle class, while the NWSA embraced working-class issues and members.

The Women's Journal

The next year, Lucy raised enough funds to start a suffrage weekly newspaper, The Woman's Journal. For the first two years, it was edited by Mary Livermore, and then Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell became the editors. Lucy Stone found working on a newspaper far more compatible with family life than the lecture circuit.

"But I do believe that a woman's truest place is in a home, with a husband and with children, and with large freedom, pecuniary freedom, personal freedom, and the right to vote." Lucy Stone to her adult daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell

Alice Stone Blackwell attended Boston University, where she was one of two women in a class with 26 men. She later got involved with The Woman's Journal, which survived until 1917. Alice was the sole editor during its later years.

The Woman's Journal under Stone and Blackwell maintained a Republican Party line, opposing, for instance, labor movement organizing and strikes and Victoria Woodhull's radicalism, in contrast to the Anthony-Stanton NWSA.

Last Years

Lucy Stone's radical move to keep her own name continued to inspire and enrage. In 1879, Massachusetts gave women a limited right to vote for the school committee. In Boston, however, the registrars refused to let Lucy Stone vote unless she used her husband's name. She continued to find that, on legal documents and when registering with her husband at hotels, she had to sign as "Lucy Stone, married to Henry Blackwell," for her signature to be accepted as valid.

Lucy Stone did, in the 1880s, welcome Edward Bellamy's American version of Utopian socialism, as did many other woman suffrage activists. Bellamy's vision in the book "Looking Backward" drew a vivid picture of a society with economic and social equality for women.

In 1890, Alice Stone Blackwell, now a leader in the woman suffrage movement in her own right, engineered a reunification of the two competing suffrage organizations. The National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association united to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton as president, Susan B. Anthony as vice president, and Lucy Stone as chairman of the executive committee.

In an 1887 speech to the New England Woman's Club, Stone said:

"I think, with never-ending gratitude, that the young women of today do not and can never know at what price their right to free speech and to speak at all in public has been earned." 

Death

Stone's voice had already faded and she rarely spoke to large groups later in her life. But in 1893, she gave lectures at the World's Columbian Exposition. A few months later, she died in Boston of cancer and was cremated. Her last words to her daughter were "Make the world better."

Legacy

Lucy Stone is less well known today than Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, or Julia Ward Howe, whose "Battle Hymn of the Republic" helped immortalize her name. Stone's daughter Alice Stone Blackwell published her mother's biography, "Lucy Stone, Pioneer of Woman's Rights," in 1930, helping to keep her name and contributions known. But Lucy Stone is still remembered today primarily as the first woman to keep her own name after marriage. Women who follow that custom are sometimes called "Lucy Stoners."

Sources

  • Adler, Stephen J. and Lisa Grunwald. "Women's Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present." New York: Random House, 2005.
  • Lucy Stone.” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.
  • Lucy Stone.” National Women's History Museum.
  • McMillen, Sally G. "Lucy Stone: An Unapologetic Life." Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Wheeler, Leslie. "Lucy Stone: Radical Beginnings." Spender, Dale (ed.). Feminist Theorists: Three Centuries of Key Women Thinkers. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983