By Joseph Collins, Staff Writer
“Justice, simple justice, is what the world needs.” – Lucy Stone
A powerhouse speaker and a dedicated activist, Lucy Stone was one of the giants in the struggle for women’s rights. With relentless passion and commitment, she pushed the movement forward at a time when the struggle for gender equality seemed almost insurmountable. For years, Lucy Stone traveled from city to city, speaking to crowds all across the United States about the injustices of gender inequality and about the urgent need to give women the right to vote and to end oppression of all kinds, including slavery. A gifted writer, Stone also wrote extensively about women’s rights in magazines and newspapers, including “Women’s Journal,” a weekly periodical which she founded and promoted herself. But her activism was not only limited to words Stone also co-founded several women’s rights organizations of her own, including the American Women’s Suffrage Association, which openly embraced racial as well as gender equality. As a result of her perseverance and diligence, Stone was well widely respected by her peers and by reformers nationwide.
“Lucy Stone was the first speaker who really stirred the nation’s heart on the subject of woman’s wrongs.” – Elizabeth Cady Stanton
DRIVEN FROM AN EARLY AGE
Lucy Stone was born into a large, middle-class family on August 13, 1818, in West Brookfield, Massachusetts. One of nine children, Lucy was concerned about social issues from an early age. She was especially passionate about her opposition to slavery, reflecting the views of her parents, Francis and Hannah Stone, both of whom were adamant abolitionists. However, while her parents were progressive in their ideas about racial equality, her father still had many conservative ideas about women and gender. He followed a traditional patriarchal approach to running the household and would not allow his wife to keep the modest income she made from selling cheese and eggs. Lucy was resentful of how her mother was treated, and decided early in life that she would “call no man master” and never marry. As a result, she decided to get the highest education possible, earn her own living, and be free from male domination.
At the age of twenty-one, Lucy Stone defied her parent’s wishes by attending Mount Holyoke Seminary, a liberal arts college designed specifically for women who wanted to pursue a higher education. But after learning that the school was not very supportive of social reform movements, Stone left after just one term. Four years later, however she enrolled at Oberlin College (the first general-admission college willing to educate women).
She paid her own way by taking jobs as a house keeper and later teaching arithmetic to other women at Oberlin. However, due to the sexist attitudes of the time, Lucy received only half the pay of her male counterparts. When she objected to this unfairness, she was met with ridicule by the school board, and her request for equal pay was denied. Angry and defiant, she left her position in protest. When her pupils came to her defense, promising to pay what was needed to make up the difference, the school board finally relented, hired Stone back and agreed to pay her the same pay as the male teachers. This was Lucy Stone’s first successful attempt to challenge gender inequality, and it inspired her to push even harder for change as she moved forward. In 1847, she graduated from Oberlin with honors – despite the frequent sexism she faced – making her the first woman in the history of Massachusetts to ever earn a bachelor’s degree.
It was while she was at Oberlin that Lucy Stone delivered her first public speech, arguing for greater gender equality and an end to sexist discrimination. Although her mother did not approve of her public speaking, Lucy Stone found it invigorating and felt driven to follow her own calling, so she could “pursue that course of conduct which, to me, appears best calculated to promote the highest good of the world.”
Upon graduating, Lucy Stone found employment as a professional lecturer at the American Anti-Slavery Society, an abolitionist organization co-founded by several world-famous abolitionists, including Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison. Stone had met Garrison during her time at Oberlin and was impressed with his acumen and sense of social justice. This was an important move in her life, as it not only reinforced her anti-slavery beliefs, but launched her career as a public speaker.
SPEAKING OUT, RISING UP
As a professional lecturer, Lucy Sone delivered powerful anti-slavery speeches that drew crowds of hundreds and sometimes even thousands. Over time, she honed her oratory skills and quickly became an exceptional speaker, often telling entertaining stories to make her point, with the ability to move audiences to laughter or tears.
Then in the summer of 1848, Lucy was invited to speak at the ground-breaking Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY – the first women’s rights convention in the history of the world. The convention was extremely successful, drawing nearly 200 women from throughout the area, and resulting in the Declaration of Sentiments, one of the most important documents ever produced in the history of women’s rights.
Still despite the success of this first-ever convention, Lucy Stone was concerned that it was too limited in scope because it was largely a local/regional gathering. Eager to bring the message to a larger audience, Lucy began planning a full-blown national convention for women, hoping to draw women from all across the country. With the help of Paulina Davis (founder of the New England Woman Suffrage Association), Lucy Stone organized the first National Women’s Rights Convention on October 23–24, 1850, at Brinley Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts. In total, more than 1,000 people attended the first day of the convention, with delegates coming from more than 11 different states nationwide, including New York, Rhode Island, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California.
“Now all we need is to continue to speak the truth fearlessly,” said Stone, addressing the audience, “and we shall add to our number those who will turn the scale to the side of equal and full justice in all things.” Among the topics discussed were equal wages, greater access to education, more job opportunities, property rights for women, marriage reform, and – most important of all – voting rights.
Overall, the national convention was a huge success, and it became the first in a series of national conventions that were held annually for the next 10 years, until the outbreak of the US Civil War. While the location of the national convention changed over the years – from Cleveland to Philadelphia to New York City – the topics largely remained the same, with a strong emphasis on voting rights.
PETITIONS, MARRIAGE, AND REBELLION
As Stone continued to lecture over the next several years, she soon emerged as a powerful orator and gained much attention. In 1851, however, she decided to speak almost exclusively on the issue of women’s rights and no other subject. She was well paid for her speeches, and she followed an intensely busy schedule, traveling throughout the nation to deliver her message about the need for greater gender equality.
While some audiences were friendly and receptive to her message, Lucy Stone often faced open hostility from the crowds she spoke to. Along the way, she made some enemies among those who were more traditional in their attitudes, including several churches, who were often against the more progressive ideas of women’s rights and emancipation. When Lucy Stone responded to their condemnation with some criticisms of her own, she was expelled by her own church (Congregational Church). Nevertheless, she persisted. Throughout the 1850s she continued to lecture on women’s rights in nearly every state in the east and north east. Chicago papers, in particular, praised her for her powerful speeches, and said that they were triggering discussions in homes across the city. She was clearly having a huge influence on people and was leaving an indelible mark on society.
During these busy and influential years, Lucy Stone continued to push the movement forward by leading the effort to petition local governments. For the most part, the petitions urged local officials to implement new laws that would give greater freedoms to women. Several petitions also requested that state constitutions be altered to allow women the right to vote and be a part of the legislative process, among other things. Over the years, Lucy Stone helped initiate petition efforts in several states, including New York, Ohio, and Indiana.
As the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator noted:
“Never before, since the world was made, in any country, has a woman publicly made her demand in the hall of legislation to be represented in her own person, and to have an equal part in framing the laws and determining the action of government.”
Although her political activities kept Lucy Stone extremely busy, she also made time to develop her social life. During the mid-1850s, Stone met and gradually fell in love with Henry Blackwell, another abolitionist and supporter of women’s rights. In spite of her insistence that she had no desire to marry and lose control over her life and personhood, Blackwell pursued her for two years, trying to convince her that should wouldn’t have to give up any personal freedom and that they could make it work out to their mutual satisfaction. Eventually, she relented and agreed to his proposal.
Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell were married on May 1st, 1855, in West Brookfield, Massachusetts. Although she initially took his surname, she soon dropped it and returned to her own maiden name, claiming: “A wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should take hers. My name is my identity and must not be lost.” Although the marriage was not exactly traditional, it was very successful, and the two of them remained together for the rest of their lives. Over the years, they had one daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell, who would grow up to become a leader of the suffrage movement and write her mother’s biography, “Lucy Stone: Pioneer Woman Suffragist.”
Eventually, in 1858, Lucy and Henry moved to Orange County, NJ. When the first tax bill came, Stone refused to pay it and sent it back, stating that it was unfair to tax women if they did not have the right to vote, as it was a violation of America’s founding principles (no taxation without representation!). This act of defiance inspired other women around the country to do the same, while those that did continue to pay taxes went to the voting polls demanding their right to vote. Once again, Stone was having an enormous influence on women around the country, as she pushed for social reform and equal representation.
Although Stone continued to lecture and advocate for women’s rights and an end to slavery even after marriage, the birth of her daughter reduced her activism to a large degree. While she helped make arrangements for the annual National Women’s Rights Conventions, she was too busy raising Alice to attend and left the responsibility of running the meetings to others. Stone eventually withdrew from public life almost entirely, making appearances very infrequently. Only twice, in 1863, during the Civil War, did she attend any gatherings; once to appear at the convention of the Women’s Loyal National League, and another time to celebrate the 13th anniversary of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
In some ways, the US Civil War represented a problem for Stone, as it did for many abolitionists. Although she firmly believed in bringing a swift end to slavery, Lucy Stone could not support the war, as she opposed violence of all kinds, regardless of the reason. Throughout her life, she remained committed to non-violence as a moral principle.
After the Civil War finally ended in 1865, Stone began to ease back into the public eye, traveling and giving lectures on women’s rights throughout New England and New York. With her daughter in the care of a nanny, Stone was free to travel and get back to her work as a social reformer. In 1868, she co-founded and became president of the State Woman’s Suffrage Association of New Jersey, which eventually evolved into the League of Women Voters of New Jersey in 1920.
Stone also launched a New England chapter of the association and helped found the American Equal Rights Association. In January of 1866, she attended an American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) meeting to propose that both the women’s rights and anti-slavery movements unite to create one larger movement demanding equal rights for all citizens. When the AASS rejected the proposal, preferring to focus exclusively on issues of race, the National Women’s Rights Convention voted to transform their organization into the American Equal Rights Association, calling for equality and justice for all Americans – regardless of race or gender. Although Stone did not appear at the meeting, she fully supported the motion, and became more involved later on in the efforts to promote this new vision for the organization.
While Lucy immersed herself once again in social activism, her husband invested their savings in various financial ventures. Over time, these investments paid off, bringing in a significant amount of money. Now wealthy, Stone and her family moved to Dorchester, Massachusetts, to live in a 17- room house with a significant amount of land. There, Lucy Stone resumed her involvement with the women’s rights movement, working closely with the New England Woman Suffrage Association (NEWSA).
That same year, she founded “Women’s Journal,” an eight-page weekly newspaper that focused on women’s rights, quickly becoming the official voice of the suffrage movement. Stone ran and edited the paper for the remainder of her life, assisted at times by her husband and daughter. Many years later, in 1917, when victory for women’s suffrage was close at hand, Carrie Chapman Catt, leader of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, said, “There can be no overestimating the value to the suffrage cause of the ‘Woman’s Journal.’ The suffrage success of today is not conceivable without the Woman’s Journal’s part in it.”
In 1877, Stone was asked to assist Colorado activists in their campaign to gain suffrage for women in their state. With the help of her husband, Stone worked the northern half of Colorado, while Susan B. Anthony worked the southern part. Still, despite their efforts and a fair amount of public support, Colorado legislators were largely against the initiative, and the measure was easily defeated. While the loss was somewhat demoralizing, movement organizers shook it off and kept moving forward, looking for new battles to win.
Ten years later, in 1887, Stone and other women’s rights activists were called away from a convention to attend a congressional hearing on the subject by the United States House Committee on the Judiciary. “I come before this committee with the sense which I always feel,” said Stone, “that we are handicapped as women in what we try to do for ourselves by the single fact that we have no vote. This cheapens us. You do not care so much for us as if we had votes.” Stone was later elected as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) for her courage and oratory skills.
In 1893, Stone travelled to Chicago to attend the World’s Congress of Representative Women, where she gave her final public speeches on the subject of women’s rights, including one entitled “The Progress of Fifty Years.” “I think, with never-ending gratitude,” said Stone, “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 AND LEGACY
Although Stone wanted to be more involved with the Chicago exposition, she became ill, limiting her ability to contribute for several months. Eventually, she was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer, a condition that was incurable at the time and generally fatal. Stunned by the news, Lucy Stone wrote farewell letters to family and friends, stating in one that she “prepared for death with serenity and an unwavering concern for the women’s cause.”
On October 18, 1893 at the age of 75, Lucy Stone passed away. More than 1,100 mourners showed up for her funeral. She was praised for her lifelong commitment to social justice and her tireless efforts to bring about greater gender equality at every level. For her prominent role in advancing women’s rights, Stone has been honored with a U.S. Postal stamp and has had a park and a college campus at Rutgers University in New Jersey named after her.
For nearly sixty years Lucy Stone devoted her life to the emancipation of slaves and advancing the rights of women across America. Strong, courageous and extraordinarily smart, she played a major role in pushing the women’s rights movement forward. And although it wasn’t until thirty years after her death that American women would finally get the right to vote, that enormous victory would not have been possible without the dedication and hard work of Lucy Stone, who relentlessly fought to pave the way for its arrival. Today, she is remembered as one of the great social reformers in American history.