The American feminist and abolitionist Lucy Stone was born on this day in 1818. Though older than Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton by just a few years, Stone was “the morning star” of nineteenth-century American feminism, her provocative speeches making her “the first person by whom the heart of the American public was deeply stirred on the woman question” (Stanton). Stone is also in the feminist record as the first female college graduate from Massachusetts and the first woman to keep her maiden name. At her funeral, her activist husband, Henry Blackwell, again read out the “Marriage Protest” the two had proclaimed on their wedding day, affirming “the wife as an independent, rational being” and stripping the husband of all “injurious and unnatural superiority.” And then, according to her wishes, Stone became the first New England woman to be cremated.
However groundbreaking, the problem with such lists of feminist facts, says Jean H. Baker in Sisters, is that they allow highly individual women to be “homogenized into stiff icons”: “We conflate them into one middle-class overweight white woman with a severe look, hair unflatteringly pulled behind her ears, dressed in a high-necked black dress with a lace collar and cameo pin for decoration.” Baker’s group biography of Stone, Stanton, Anthony, and several others aims to personalize by providing a “sense of the suffragists who suffered marital infidelities, battled to retain their femininity even as they were pelted by eggs during their speeches, worried about their children, and wondered, in the eternally unresolved battle for all working women, how to balance family responsibilities with time-consuming activism.”
Baker’s chapter on Stone focuses on the challenges of her married years, but we also get glimpses of her earlier struggles. Denied any help from her father for her first year of college, Stone saved for nine years, doing anything from teaching to sewing to selling chestnuts. Though unmarried, almost thirty, and thoroughly in debt when she graduated, she had no trouble declining the usual gender imperatives, such as the one communicated in one of her sister’s letters: “Father says you better come home and get a schoolhouse.”
Stone and her sisters-in-arms reached their suffrage goal ninety-two years ago this week — on August 18, 1920, with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.