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 Contents: UU World Back Issue

Lucy Stone, woman's rights champion

by Joelle Million

Resolving at an early age to remain single and “call no man master,” Lucy Stone (1818-1893) struggled to acquire an education that would allow her to live as an independent woman. In 1843 she traveled to Oberlin, Ohio, to attend the only college that then admitted women, but even there she had to struggle against forces determined to keep her inside “woman's sphere.” Raised a Congregationalist, she was converted to Unitarianism at college—paradoxically by a lecture on the Trinity by Oberlin's professor of theology, the great revivalist Charles Grandison Finney. Excommunicated from the Congregational church in 1851 because of her radical abolitionism, she thereafter identified herself as a Unitarian.

Paid nearly half of what male classmates received for either menial or teaching positions at Oberlin, she staged in 1845 what may have been the nation's first “strike” for equal pay for women. When she decided to become a reform lecturer, she fought to acquire the rhetorical training and experience that was central to a man's college education but was deemed inappropriate for women.

Working as a field agent for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society from 1848 to 1851, Stone became a supremely effective speaker, learned the ropes of reform work, and initiated woman suffrage petitioning in Massachusetts. She was the primary impetus behind the 1850 National Woman's Rights Convention, which brought scattered women's rights efforts into a central organization and gave the movement system and cohesion.

She labored for “woman's rights” in many ways, but it was through her remarkable oratory, great eloquence, and persuasive power that she made her most important contribution to the cause. Few of her extemporaneous speeches survive, but numerous testimonies survive as to their effect—calming riotous audiences, reversing prejudices, motivating women to knock on doors closed against them, inspiring whole towns to support pathbreaking efforts. She converted Susan B. Anthony to the need for woman's suffrage, encouraged her to take up public speaking, and groomed her to help manage the annual national conventions.

On May 27, 1853—150 years ago last spring—Stone addressed the first legislative hearing in the United States on female suffrage. Her speech in the Senate Chamber of the Massachusetts State House culminated a five-month campaign collecting signatures to a petition asking the state to strike the word “male” from the constitution. Although she worked in that campaign without the backing of any formal organization, half of the reformers who initially endorsed her petition were Unitarians or Universalists.

Despite Stone's early resolve not to marry, she succumbed to the ardent wooing of Henry Browne Blackwell in 1855, who convinced her that they could have a marriage of equal partnership despite what laws decreed. As part of their wedding ceremony, Blackwell pledged never to avail himself of the superior rights law gave the husband over his wife's income, property, person, and children. Resolute about keeping her autonomy, she refused marital support and kept her own name instead of assuming Blackwell's. Later generations of married women who followed Stone's example were, until the middle of the twentieth century, called “Lucy Stoners.” Although able to maintain both her career and financial independence for the first two years of marriage, the birth of a daughter in 1857 forced Stone to curtail public speaking and accept the support of her husband. She struggled to balance motherhood with her career but finally, on the eve of the Civil War, suspended public work altogether and turned management of the national conventions over to Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Joelle Million is the author of Woman's Voice, Woman's Place: Lucy Stone and the Birth of the Woman's Rights Movement (Praeger, 2003; $49.95) and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Greater Springfield, Massachusetts.

 Contents: UU World Back Issue
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