Lucy Stone

The Original Independent Woman

Lucy Stone was a woman of many firsts. She was the first woman in Massachusetts to earn a bachelors degree. Upon her death, she was the first person to be cremated in New England. However, probably her most famous first, was that in 1855 Lucy Stone became the first woman to retain her maiden name after marriage. This may not seem like a big deal today, but in the 19th century it created quite the scandal.

After a two-year courtship, Lucy Stone married Henry Blackwell, and with his full support kept her name. At their ceremony they had the following statement read in criticism to the current marriage laws that “refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being, while they confer on the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority, investing him with legal powers which no honorable man would exercise, and which no man should possess.”

This decision held many implications, namely that many institutions refused to acknowledge that “Lucy Stone” was her legal name and she would often have to write “Lucy Stone: Married to Henry Blackwell”, even for things as simple as checking into a hotel. As more women followed in Lucy’s footsteps the term “Lucy Stoner” was coined to refer to married women who kept their maiden names. This term was used in derision by opponents to women’s rights and worn as a badge of honor by the women themselves.

While this may be what Lucy Stone is most widely remembered for, her contributions as an abolitionist and suffragist far outshine that deed. Lucy Stone stands with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as a powerful triumvirate of women’s rights activists in the 19th century. It is ironic that Stone holds the least recognition despite the fact that it was one of her speeches at the 1852 women’s rights convention in Worcester, MA – which Stone helped organize – that converted Anthony to the cause in the first place.

Lucy Stone’s fervor for abolition and women’s rights began in her childhood. Born into a strict Congregationalist family, in 1818, she fully adopted their views on abolition. However she rebelled against the Bible’s teachings that women were inferior to men, even going so far as to state that those passages had to have been translated incorrectly. Against her father’s wishes and beliefs, Stone pursued a higher education, working her way through college by teaching and doing housework to pay for the tuition, room and board.

Upon her graduation in 1847, Oberlin College asked her to write a commencement speech. Write a speech, not give a speech. Even as one of the most progressive colleges in the country, they admitted both women and African-Americans, Oberlin still did not allow women to give public addresses.

As she would not be allowed to speak her own words, Stone turned down the request, graduated and returned to Massachusetts where she gave her first public speech from the pulpit of her brother’s church. Her speech, largely on abolition but with some women’s rights thrown in, garnered her the attention of an abolitionist group called the American Anti-Slavery Society, that hired her to travel the country speaking on their behalf. Stone was a powerful and eloquent orator and would often attract large crowds despite the fact that women were discouraged and often times prevented from speaking in public.

For every supporter she had there was someone tearing down her posters, burning pepper in the auditoriums or throwing things at her during her speeches. None of this slowed her down. Even after she received censure that her inclusion of women’s rights in with abolition was clouding and confusing the issue, she simply separated the issues by using weekends to speak about abolition and weekdays to speak about women’s rights.

Stone would often speak in front of legislative bodies to promote both causes. In 1858, Stone refused to pay property taxes – she and Blackwell made a point of keeping her property under her name – stating no taxation without representation. Her protest did not garner her a victory, as the government seized household goods to cover what she owed, but the incident was widely publicized. In 1863, Stone helped establish (although her involvement is often over-looked, and all the credit is given to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton) the Women’s National Loyal League, which helped to pass the 13th amendment to the constitution.

After the Civil War, many activists including Anthony and Stanton turned their focus solely to women’s rights. Stone, however, felt that lobbying for the rights of African-Americans didn’t diminish the fight for women’s rights and continued to speak and write about both topics. In 1867, Stone and her husband started “The Women’s Journal” which quickly became known as the voice of the women’s movement. Despite Stone’s largely conservative viewpoints, the journal would often champion not only Stone’s views but the morel liberal positions as well.

It wasn’t until the passage of the 15th amendment in 1869 that an official rift grew within the women’s suffrage movement. The 15th amendment granted the right to vote to all “male citizens” regardless of color. Some suffragettes led by Anthony and Stanton, saw this as a deliberate blow to the women’s movement. Others, led by Stone and Julia Ward Howe, saw this as a partial gain, more rights had been granted. This led to Anthony and Stanton forming the National Woman Suffrage Association, vowing that they would withhold all support of any amendment that didn’t further the rights of women.

Conversely Stone and Howe established the American Woman Suffrage Association focusing on women’s suffrage at the state level and refusing to undermine strides made in African-American civil-rights. Bitter animosity between the two sides quickly grew, yet they each continued to operate.

It wasn’t until 1890 that the two organizations rejoined. Stone saw that a unification was truly best for the movement, so with the help of her daughter Alice Stone Blackwell – who had already begun to establish a name for herself in the women’s movement – the two organizations merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Stone was named as chair of the executive committee, but her failing health prevented her from participating more than on brief occasions.

Lucy Stone died in 1893, just five months after her last speaking engagement. She was a key figure in the women’s rights movement for almost 50 years taking the cause from its scattered beginnings all the way through to a fully formed organization. She earned and truly deserved her nickname, “the morning star of the women’s rights movement.”
*Originally appeared in Business Heroine Magazine