Reading Matters

New biography gives Lucy Stone credit for human rights efforts

Davidson College professor Sally McMillen has written a new biography of 19th century women’s rights activist Lucy Stone.
Davidson College professor Sally McMillen has written a new biography of 19th century women’s rights activist Lucy Stone. Bill Giduz

An eye-opening moment in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., inspired Sally McMillen, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Professor of History at Davidson College, to write the biography of Lucy Stone, born in 1818 on a farm outside West Brookfield, Mass.

Ignored and slighted by history, Stone was one of the most remarkable women in the women’s rights movement of the 19th century: one of the first to retain her maiden name after marriage, setting a trend; the first woman in Massachusetts to earn a college degree (and one of only a handful in this country); one of the few women to go on the lecture circuit, often drawing enormous crowds to her spirited talks on abolition and women’s rights.

Yet, McMillen was staring at the marble statue of three others in the women’s rights struggle – Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott – and reading the inscription beneath: “Historically, these women stand unique and peerless.”

Peerless? thought McMillen. Not so! She had come to know Lucy Stone through research for her book “Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement.” This woman was against slavery and anything else that shackled the human spirit, including the laws men made to keep women in their place.

Instantly, she knew her task: To bring Lucy Stone to light and to tell the world of her achievements. The result is an engaging and necessary book: “Lucy Stone: An Unapologetic Life” (Oxford University Press, $29.95).

Q: If Lucy Stone lived in Charlotte in 2015, what would be her causes?

A: What a vastly different world from the one she lived in! But if she did and devoted herself to any causes, I think she would dedicate herself to finding ways to prevent violence against women, to seeking justice and equality for women worldwide, and to improving education in our city and nation. She might join an organization such as Planned Parenthood and any organization that fights for justice globally.

Q. Would she join a church?

A. She would be a Unitarian. Growing up, she belonged to the Congregational Church but began to lose faith in most churches because most ministers opposed women’s equality and women’s suffrage, using biblical passages to uphold women’s inferiority.

Q. Why were so few Southern women active in the fight for women’s rights in the 19th century?

A. The South was even more patriarchal than the rest of the nation, and many in the South saw these Northern women as rabble-rousers who had moved beyond their rightful place in the home. And how many men – North or South – wanted to dilute their political power by allowing women to vote? Southern women did not become involved in the suffrage movement until the late nineteenth century (in the North, organized efforts began in 1848).

Q. I’m curious about Lucy’s sudden and dramatic lack of spirit for public speaking, which she had done with such gusto previously, commanding sold-out audiences – after the birth of daughter Alice and the death of her premature son.

A. For Lucy, a defining moment was the birth of Alice. She had spent years determined never to marry because according to the law, women lost all rights and property once they married. But Henry Browne Blackwell wore her down, promising a marriage of equal partners, and he kept his word. After they married, Lucy kept her maiden name and continued her successful and lucrative career as a public lecturer. But when Alice was born, she experienced all the demands of motherhood – sleepless nights, breastfeeding, nursing illnesses and constant vigilance. When a premature son was born two years later and then died, she realized the importance of motherhood. After the Civil War, however, she was back in the fray.

Q. When she drove herself relentlessly, her rheumatism flared. Pneumonia and bronchitis followed. Would you say Lucy’s failing was an inability to pace herself?

A. Lucy definitely did not pace herself. There is no doubt she was a driven woman in her dedication to human equality. In fact, as death approached in 1893, she regretted that she did not have another decade to devote to women’s suffrage.

Q. What was it about Lucy that made her as a very young woman so passionate about an education at a time when only a handful of women in the U.S. sought a higher education?

A. Her parents believed in education – all the Stone children attended local schools (fortunately Massachusetts was a state that saw public education as important). Two of Lucy’s brothers graduated from college. But her father, a man of his time, did not feel his daughters needed more than a basic education, and when Lucy asked for financial help so she could advance her schooling, he refused. When she learned that a school in Ohio, Oberlin Collegiate Institute (opened in 1833), allowed women to earn a bachelor’s degree, she was determined to attend. Lucy earned all the money she needed for travel expenses and tuition and traveled 650 miles by herself to enroll at Oberlin. She graduated in 1847 at the age of 29, one of the first women in the nation and the first from Massachusetts to earn a college degree. According to fellow students at Oberlin, she was brilliant.

Q. While you were researching and writing, did you stumble on anyone that snagged your interest for a next book?

A. I wish! I thought about writing about several of the men who were involved in the 19th-century women’s suffrage movement – men like William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, etc. – for they were a fascinating group. I have not yet found another person for whom I would like to write a biography – I think you need to like and respect that individual.

Q. As parents and grandparents, how do we encourage our daughters and granddaughters to be the kind of altruistic freethinkers that Lucy Stone was?

A. Great question, for generally women do not have that overwhelming passion and commitment today that these ardent suffragists exhibited in the 19th century. What is too bad is that so many young women today have no sense of the struggle that took place to win them the rights they take for granted. Also, we don’t have a single, compelling issue that could draw many women together as suffrage did in the 19th and early-20th centuries.

Q. What is one right in the South of 2015 women do not yet have that you would like to see us have?

A. A right to choose – this has been chipped away at on so many levels.

Q. Do you feel satisfied that you have given Lucy Stone the attention she has deserved?

A. I certainly hope so. I loved writing this biography, for I have enormous admiration for Stone. Her dedication to great causes was so inspiring – though she was also very human. Her role in the women’s rights movement was every bit the equal of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. And she, unlike those two, remained committed to human equality, supporting the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment (giving black men the right to vote), while Stanton and Anthony did not support it. But Lucy was humble, not a self-promoter, as were Stanton and Anthony, and that makes a difference in who gets the attention in history books. And when Anthony and Stanton edited and wrote a multivolume history of the women’s rights movement, Lucy was all but left out. (Read my book to find out why.)

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