As the founder and editor of the Woman’s Journal, the newspaper of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which Lucy Stone co-founded, she located the Journal offices in the shadow of the Massachusetts State House where she and her colleagues would have ready access to legislators. Lucy Stone was also a fierce abolitionist and a passionate public speaker on behalf of women’s rights in general, picking up the mantle for all of these issues of injustice.
Lucy Stone was born on Coy’s Hill in rural West Brookfield, Massachusetts. She had three brothers and three sisters, two of whom died when they were young adults; her sister Sarah, the youngest, remained close to Lucy for her entire life. The family was dominated by a father who believed in male superiority, including in the household. Lucy’s mother, who worked tirelessly to maintain the family farm, received little help. Lucy was not encouraged toward education, and certainly not toward college. Still, she was determined to go, and she secured a teaching position for herself at the age of sixteen. After about nine years, Lucy had earned enough money to attend Oberlin College in Ohio, the first college to allow men and women to study together. As Lucy’s daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell later explained, “At the low wages then paid to women, it took Lucy nine years to save up money enough to enter college. There was no difficulty as to the choice of an alma mater. There was only one college that admitted women.”
At Oberlin, Lucy discovered her talent for public speaking. However, the debating society was only open to men; women were expected to sit in the audience. Lucy persuaded one professor to tutor another student, Antoinette Brown Blackwell (later, Lucy’s sister-in-law), and her in one successful oratory presentation, but the college squashed the activity. The women met in secret, and continued to practice their public speaking skills. Lucy opened their first meeting, stating, “We shall leave this college with the reputation of a thorough collegiate course, yet not one of us has received any rhetorical or elocutionary training. Not one of us could state a question or argue it in successful debate. For this reason I have proposed the formation of this association.”
Lucy Stone’s talent as a writer was recognized by the college, however, and she was asked to compose a commencement address for her 1847 graduation ceremony. When she learned that a man would deliver her speech, she refused to comply. Years later, in 1883, when Oberlin College celebrated its 50th anniversary, officials invited Lucy Stone to return and give her own speech — which she did.
At Oberlin, Lucy Stone encountered William Lloyd Garrison and become actively involved in the abolitionist movement. The public address she gave from the pulpit of her brother’s church in Gardner, Massachusetts, after she graduated from Oberlin led the American Anti-Slavery Society to hire her as a public speaker. Lucy Stone was one of the first women to step out of the traditional, behind-the-scenes “woman’s sphere” and take to the public stage. She lectured on both abolitionism and women’s rights. Though she faced verbal abuse and physical attack, she kept on.
Lucy Stone was not part of the first (essentially local) women’s rights convention that took place in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, but she was instrumental in organizing the first national women’s rights convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, which drew more than a thousand people who were “to consider the great question of Woman’s Rights, Duties, and Relations; and the Men and Women of our country who feel sufficient interest in the subject, to give an earnest thought and effective effort to its rightful adjustment.”
As the Worcester Women’s History Project explains, “The first National Woman’s Rights Convention, in 1850, was significant for a number of reasons. It marked the beginning of the organized movement for women’s rights and called for the total reorganization of ‘all social, political, industrial interests and institutions.’ The convention elected officers who were appointed to committees on education, civil and political rights, social relations, and avocations. Its final resolution, which called for ‘Equality before the law without distinction of sex or color,’ was highly controversial because of its shocking support of equality for black women. The convention was applauded by a few local and national newspapers, but disparaged by most of them. The issues raised at the convention, however, were heard throughout the world. It became a touchstone for international feminism, inspiring coverage and essays in France, England, and Germany.
The conference attendees from Massachusetts who signed the convention document included Lucy Stone, William H. Channing, Harriet K. Hunt, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Barney, Eliza Barney, Wendell Phillips, Ann Greene Phillips, Adin Ballou, Anna Q.T. Parsons, Mary H.L. Cabot, B.S. Treanor, Mary M. Brooks, T.W. Higginson, Mary E. Higginson, Emily Winslow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, Charles F. Hovey, Sarah Earle, Abby Kelley Foster, Dr. Seth Rogers, Eliza F. Taft, Dr. A. C. Taft, Charles K. Whipple, Mary Bullard, Emma C. Goodwin, Abby H. Price, Thankful Southwick, Eliza J. Kenney, Louisa M. Sewall, Sarah Southwick.
Lucy Stone continued to speak and tour the country to address women’s rights and abolition and speak to legislators. In 1851, she addressed the Massachusetts legislature at the State House, asking them to give full civil rights to women under the state constitution. That day she met Henry Brown Blackwell whom she would eventually marry after a two-year courtship during which Henry promised to protest restrictive marriage laws. Their vows included a statement refusing to adhere to a law that “refused to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being.” They omitted the word “obey” from the vows, and Lucy kept her own name—hereafter referring to herself as Mrs. Lucy Stone. From then on, other women who kept their names were referred to as “Lucy Stoners.”
In 1857, Lucy gave birth to Alice Stone Blackwell, her only child. Shortly thereafter the refused to pay her property tax bill on the grounds that she was not fairly represented. “Sir: Enclosed I return my tax bill, without paying it,” she wrote to the tax collector in a letter that was published in the Orange Journal, a local newspaper. “My reason for doing so, is, that women suffer taxation, and yet have no representation, which is not only unjust to one half of the adult population, but is contrary to our theory of government.” Years later, in 1873, with her friend Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Stone organized the New England Women’s Tea Party at Faneuil Hall where the women protested taxation without representation in a very public forum.
Lucy devoted much of her energy during the Civil War to the Union side and the end of slavery. After the war, when Congress passed the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection under the law to former male slaves, suffragists were dismayed to have the word “male” included in the Constitution. Under the 15th Amendment, African American men would have the right to vote. This time, the suffrage movement suffered a terrible schism.
Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and others (many of them Bostonians) agreed with the African American rights crusader Frederick Douglass that the 15th Amendment had a better chance of passing as-is and that for Black men this was literally a matter of life and death. This group believed woman suffrage was better handled at the state level, persuading state by state until a majority would prevail.
Other suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony disagreed, and held fast to the call for national women’s suffrage. They formed the National Woman Suffrage Association in New York. In Boston, where Lucy and her family had moved in 1869 to the Dorchester section, Lucy Stone and others founded the American Woman Suffrage Association and began to publish the Woman’s Journal out of their offices at 5 Park Street with Mary Rice Livermore as the first editor. It wasn’t until 20 years later, thanks to Alice Stone Blackwell, that the two sides were united as the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
Lucy Stone did not live to see women achieve the right to vote, but the role she played toward that 1920 achievement was pivotal. For her unwavering drive and inspiring presence, her suffrage colleagues called her their “morning star.”
Even in death, Lucy Stone was a “first.” By her own design, she had six men and six women as pallbearers. She was also the first person in Massachusetts to be cremated. Unfortunately, Forest Hills Cemetery, where she is buried, did not respect her last wishes and they used the last name “Blackwell” on her stone.
– Bonnie Hurd Smith