Lucy Stone - "I believe the influence of woman will save the country before every other power."
Updated: Jan 20, 2020
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment which gave women throughout the United States the right to vote. One woman who dedicated her life to women's rights, suffrage and the anti-slavery movement was Lucy Stone.
Born in rural Massachusetts in 1818, Lucy Stone was the eighth child in a family of nine children. Lucy was raised by a zealous, abolitionist father and a submissive mother. Although her parents believed in the emancipation of slaves, they did not embrace women's rights. Lucy's father believed that her place was in the home, learning to be a homemaker.
Lucy was frustrated from a very young age that her brothers were granted higher education and she was not, even though she had as much, if not more aptitude for learning than her brothers. Her father refused to finance an education for Lucy past an elementary level. However, his withholding of funds did not have the desired effect of discouraging Lucy, rather it compelled her to work as a teacher as long as it took to raise enough money to go to college.
Lucy soon discovered that female teachers earned only half of what the male teachers earned for the same work. This somewhat bemused her because women were not given discounts for food or housing or clothing. She voiced her complaints to the school board. When the board denied her requests for equal pay, Lucy quit. Her students and their families pleaded with the board to reinstate her. After months of pressure the board yielded and granted Lucy and the other female teachers pay equal to their male counterparts.
After 9 years of saving money for her higher education, at the age of 25, Lucy enrolled in Oberlin College in Ohio. Oberlin was one of the first schools in the nation to open its doors to women and people of color. Though Lucy excelled at Oberlin, she continued to meet inequitable practices. Lucy was angered to learn that women were not allowed to register for elocution classes and debate training. Lucy argued that women must have training to put forth their ideas with logic and discernment. With the help a liberally minded teacher, Lucy was able to participate in a single debate at school. However, once the other faculty heard of it, they put an end to any further meetings. Lucy, not to to be dissuaded, was able to find another venue. A colored woman whose child Lucy tutored allowed Lucy and several other women to practice in her parlor. It was during this time that Lucy decided to pursue the vocation of being an orator or public speaker, a career that was not open to women up to this point.
Lucy graduated with honors and was chosen to write the graduation speech. When men received this honor, they read their speeches. Lucy was asked to write the speech but was not allowed to read it, so she declined the honor stating she "could not support a principle that denied women the privilege of being co-laborers with men in any sphere to which their ability makes them adequate.” When Lucy received her bachelor’s degree in 1847, she became the first woman in Massachusetts to graduate from college.
After graduation, Lucy was hired by the Massachusetts Anti-slavery Society and began to give speeches. Lucy proved to be a popular and an effective speaker with the ability to bring her audience to tears or laughter at will. She was described as “a little meek-looking Quakerish body, with the sweetest, modest manners and yet as unshrinking and self-possessed as a loaded cannon.” Often, amongst the abolitionist crowds, Lucy was pelted with rotten eggs and fruit for daring to speak on a stage. Her father, mother and sisters were also unsupportive. She received many letters from them urging her to remember her sphere and not cause herself or her family any undo harm or reproach by speaking publicly.
In 1851, while at an antislavery convention in Boston, MA, Lucy went to a nearby art exhibit. There she viewed Hiram Power’s statue, the Greek Slave. Lucy was so moved by the statue of a woman in chains she discussed it at the convention that evening and was reprimanded by the society’s manager for discussing women’s rights at an anti-slavery meeting. Lucy replied to his reproach, "I was a woman before I was an abolitionist. I must speak for women.”
From the fall of 1851 onward, Lucy made an adjustment to her schedule. She would spend 6 days a week speaking on women’s rights and Sundays on anti-slavery topics. She also made a slight adjustment to her wardrobe. Now when she mounted the podium to speak she wore bloomers under a shortened skirt, as this was more practical and allowed for greater movement. The bloomers and shortened skirt were controversial at the time and Lucy, as a public speaker, was often heckled for her attire. Yet, Lucy continued to wear this style of dress for several years until she felt it became a distraction from her women's rights message.
In 1852, Lucy organized the Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, MA. (This was 2 years after the first national Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention in New York state.) The moving speech she gave at the convention was reprinted internationally and she was invited to go on a lecture tour across the US and Canada.
It was during this time that she met the English born Henry Blackwell. Henry was the brother of the first woman and the second woman to earn medical degrees in the US, respectively Elizabeth Blackwell and Emily Blackwell. Henry was immediately smitten with Lucy but Lucy had no intention of getting married. In her day, upon marriage, women's property, their names, their wealth, their governance and their children came under their husband’s control. Lucy was determined that she could never marry a man who would enjoy that sort of possession and power over another human being.
Henry, coming from a more egalitarian family, wasn’t that sort of man. After two years of courting Lucy, supporting her work and remaining steadfast in his love for her, Henry convinced Lucy to marry him. Together they wrote a legal document for marriage that would allow Lucy to maintain her property, wealth, independence and joint custody of her children among other things. (See link below for a full description of their contract.) This contract was read at their wedding in 1855 by the Unitarian minister, Thomas W. Higginson. Lucy became the first woman in the US to maintain her maiden name after marriage. Women who followed her lead were called “Lucy Stoners”. Lucy and Henry's union produced one living daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell, who was also a feminist and abolitionist.
During her marriage Lucy traveled to different states to work on referendums for suffrage. When her daughter was born and was sickly, Lucy curtailed her lecturing schedule to care for her daughter but was still active through letters in the women’s debate.
Although the Civil War brought with it the possibility of freedom for the slaves, Lucy was not a supporter of the war. She was an advocate of nonresistance, a form of principled nonviolence. During the war she worked with the Woman's Loyal National League, collecting signatures to end slavery and presiding over its first convention. When the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were enacted abolishing slavery, giving all persons citizenship rights and equal protection under the law and giving men of color the ability to vote (albeit limited ability), Lucy saw this as a step in the right direction and continued to fight for women’s rights state by state.
In her lifetime Lucy worked to set in motion and accomplish:
- political power for women - Wyoming enacted full suffrage for women and other
state had municipal suffrage;
- educational opportunities for women - women were accepted into several
- occupational opportunities for women - women were going into different fields
including art, medicine, law and public speaking;
- marriage equality for women - women were gaining more rights under the law; and
- establishment of women's associations and organizations - to collectively work to
make a difference.
Lucy believed that, "God gave each person yearnings and longings to be filled". Using her golden voice, she helped to elevate and liberate slaves and women in the United States and Canada. Lucy strongly encouraged women to carry on the work. “Now all we need is to continue to speak the truth fearlessly, and we shall add to our number those who will turn the scale to the side of equal and full justice in all things.”
In 1893, at the age of 75, Lucy Stone died from stomach cancer. It was said that she had a peaceful death surrounded by her family. According to her daughter, the last words her mother said to her were, “make the world better".
Questions to ponder as you let Lucy's story sink into your depths...
Talk about GUMPTION! From a very early age this visionary paragon was able to identify discrimination in all forms, bravely ask for reform and work diligently to accomplish liberty and equality. Which wise woman traits helped her accomplish these tasks? Think of a time in your life when you stood up against an injustice... what traits were necessary for you to persevere in your course of action?
Lucy's vocation or reason for being on the planet was to orate or use her voice to speak against slavery and for women's rights. The word vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, meaning "to call" and a derivative of the word is "to voice". How can we use our voice to answer our calling, as Lucy did so beautifully?
Holding anti-slavery views caused Lucy to be expelled from the Congregational Church where she'd been a member since childhood. (She later became a member of the Unitarian church.) Holding women's rights views caused her discord with her family. How many of us have had to suffer outside pressures and expulsion in some form in order to stay true to ourselves?
How can we best honor Lucy Stone and the other suffragettes this year? What is within our power to do to "make the world better"?
For further information on the incomparable Lucy Stone, please click on the websites below.
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Marriage Protest of Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell." ThoughtCo, Jan. 16, 2020