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Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists

Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists

by Jean H. Baker

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How the Personal Became Political In the Fight to Grant Women Civil Rights

They forever changed America: Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, Alice Paul. At their revolution's start in the 1840s, a woman's right to speak in public was questioned. By its conclusion in 1920, the victory in woman's suffrage had also


How the Personal Became Political In the Fight to Grant Women Civil Rights

They forever changed America: Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, Alice Paul. At their revolution's start in the 1840s, a woman's right to speak in public was questioned. By its conclusion in 1920, the victory in woman's suffrage had also encompassed the most fundamental rights of citizenship: the right to control wages, hold property, to contract, to sue, to testify in court. Their struggle was confrontational (women were the first to picket the White House for a political cause) and violent (women were arrested, jailed, and force-fed in prisons). And like every revolutionary before them, their struggle was personal.

For the first time, the eminent historian Jean H. Baker tellingly interweaves these women's private lives with their public achievements, presenting these revolutionary women in three dimensions, humanized, and marvelously approachable.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This lively, succinct overview of the five activists most responsible for securing the vote for American women is a welcome, intellectually sophisticated addition to feminist history. Baker, a respected historian at Goucher College, presents five interconnected critical biographical essays on Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard and Alice Paul. Baker's effortless blending of personal narrative with political and historical analysis-a technique she perfected in her groundbreaking 1987 Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography-works to great effect, not only vividly brings these women to life but explicating the complicated social and political framework in which they existed. For instance, she traces Frances Willard's evangelical feminist style and interests to her devotion to her mother and to her father's calling to be a minister during the Second Great Awakening. Baker knows a good story, such as the highly respectable Stanton's friendship with notorious free-lover Victoria Woodhull; Baker highlights both the story's drama and historical significance. While she doesn't ignore complex themes-such as the thorny relationship suffrage organizing had to the enfranchisement of African-American men-she often downplays them. Still, Baker has written a popular (yet scrupulously footnoted), smart and compelling book. (Sept.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
From the 1840s to the 1920s, a succession of strong and articulate women in America defied convention and called upon lawmakers to grant women the right to vote. In this concise monograph, Baker (history, Goucher Coll.; Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography) examines the personal and professional lives of five of the most famous leaders of the battle for American women's suffrage: Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, and Alice Paul. Individual chapters, most of which could be read as standalone pieces, examine each woman's motivations and attitudes; relationships with parents, siblings, and male and female lovers; strategies to win the vote; advocacy of other reforms; and relationships with other activists, placing them within the historical and political context. Based on some manuscript sources, but relying mainly on secondary materials, this popular treatment deals with women and a movement that have been much studied already and brings little new information to light. However, the book's close examination of the personal lives and motivations of the leaders may intrigue those new to the topic. Recommended only for the largest academic and public libraries.-Theresa McDevitt, Indiana Univ. of Pennsylvania Lib. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Public work, private lives: a thoughtful portrait of five women's-rights pioneers. Baker (History/Goucher Coll.; The Stevensons, 1996, etc.) is right to suggest that our view of the suffragists is gray and one-dimensional: "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." In fact, she observes, the early feminists were a diverse lot, though with some commonalities-many, for instance, had suffered at the hands of fathers or husbands and therefore understood firsthand the injustices wrought on women by virtue of mere gender. Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard and Alice Paul, each of whom Baker considers indispensable to the women's movement, were quite different, each possessing a different reason for advocating women's right to vote: Stanton wished to advance women's rights generally, for example, while her ally Anthony paid closer attention to the rights of working women. Baker carefully traces the origins of these various emphases while linking them to episodes in the leaders' lives: Stone, foremost a champion of women's education, attended college against her father's wishes; it took her nine years to save enough to pay a year's tuition, but her success there swayed her father to lend her money for the next year. Anthony, no stranger to "same-sex passion," and Stanton, married for 47 years, forged an alliance of ideas and activism while finding reasons to disagree on many points. And Willard campaigned vigorously not only for women's rights but also for "sexual purity" and temperance,motivated by the death of a brother to alcoholism and the certainty that women who smoked and danced could have no self-respect. A lucid account that humanizes historical figures hitherto rolled up into a single image.

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The Lives of America's Suffragists

By Jean H. Baker

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2005 Jean H. Baker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70716-3


The Martyr and the Missionary: Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell

By 1855 Lucy Stone had resisted the pleading of her suitor, Henry Blackwell, for three years. Ever since their chance meeting in Cincinnati when she had tried to cash a payment voucher from one of her lectures at his hardware store, he had pursued her — by letter, by attendance at the annual women's conventions (where Lucy, in her lover's eyes, always delivered the best speech), and once by arriving, unannounced, at her family's farm in western Massachusetts, where he waited several days reading Emerson before she returned from a lecture tour. "Let me be your friend and write to you occasionally," Blackwell implored, sending her long, engaging letters addressed to "Miss Lucy." "Love me if you can," he reiterated, adopting patient adoration as his courting strategy. "You may forget me if you will. I shall not forget you."

By the 1850s Lucy Stone was one of the most famous women in the United States. Success as an antislavery lecturer in the late 1840s had reinforced her personal commitment to what she capitalized as "The Cause." At first Lucy had meant by that the abolitionist efforts of the American Antislavery Association to create a "thorough discontent" among Americans about slavery and the circumstances of "millions of slaves sighing for freedom." But to the chagrin of antislavery leaders like Frederick Douglass and Samuel May, Lucy increasingly inserted stories about the woman's plight in her speeches until she was told that during her lecture tours she must stick to antislaveryism on the weekends and save women's issues for her less well-attended lectures on weeknights. In 1854, on the front page of his newspaper, Douglass accused her of being willing "to say to her antislavery principles, stand aside while I deal out truth less offensive." By no means intimidated by such censure, Lucy responded that she was a woman before she was an abolitionist.

"My life," she informed Henry Blackwell in a letter that might have chilled a less ardent suitor's passion, will be "an associative life ... For myself I see no choice but constant conflict ... made necessary by the horrid wrongs of society, by circumstances which it will be impossible to change until long after the grave has laid its cold colors over those who now live." It was the martyr's stance — her own suffering increased her identification with those whom she would free — and it became Lucy's lifelong reform habit. "The objects I seek to attain will not be attained until long after my body has gone to ashes." And like all martyrs, Lucy Stone's ideals were imbedded in personal history.

Born in 1818, on her father's farm in the Massachusetts Berkshires — the eighth of nine children — she had nowhere observed the pleasant intimacies of a loving marriage, or the joys of parents in shaping their children's futures, or even the domestic security of the middle-class home that, romanticized as the female's separate sphere, served as the essential enterprise for American women. Instead this third daughter remembered her mother's plaintive and oft-repeated wish that Lucy and her younger sister, Sarah, had been boys. "A woman's lot is so hard," repeated Hannah Stone. Lucy had come to agree, as she watched her mother suffer from a drunken husband's abuse, the birth of nine children followed by the death of four, and the incessant domestic drudgery of women's work on an isolated farm. She had seen her mother beg for pin money, not for herself, but rather to buy a ribbon for Lucy or material for her older sister Rhoda's school dress. "I wish your life could have been happier," Lucy once wrote her mother, as she remembered how "ugly" her father had been about giving money to the women of the household.

By the age of twelve, Lucy had absorbed a sense of duty that obliged her to run the Stone household when her mother's health failed — to milk the eight cows that were her mother's responsibility, to do Monday's washing, Tuesday's ironing, Wednesday's butter making, Thursday's cleaning, Friday's weaving, and Saturday's baking in the routinized cycle that ended only in Sunday's brief respite. It was, as she later acknowledged, "a perverse childhood."

Lucy's father, Francis Stone, was a hard man — as durable (he outlived his wife by four years) and impenetrable as his last name. On the nights when he and his friends drank rum and hard cider in the family parlor, Lucy and her sisters learned to avoid "his laying on the slaps," especially when he ordered them down to the cellar to bring up yet another bottle of liquor. And later when Stone turned to the church to stop his drinking, he refused to pray with Lucy. In this family there would be no joyful conversion of the kind popularized across the United States during the religious revivals of the Great Awakening. "He told me he would not pray, that he felt like the lions when Daniel was in the den, his mouth was shut ... and when I asked him if he thought it was the angel of the Lord that shut his mouth, he did not know what it was." Never would the proud Francis Stone bare his soul to the daughter who challenged his beliefs on the position of women.

While Hannah Stone and her daughters had no context for any improvement in their circumstances, Francis Stone did, in the way of fathers whose ancestors had fought in the French and Indian Wars, the American Revolution, and in Stone's case, Shays' Rebellion. He was ambitious for his sons and sought for them something beyond his own life of relentless toil, first in a tannery and later on the farm outside of West Brookfield where he kept chickens, cows, and pigs and raised alfalfa and oats. Although he had little formal schooling himself, he paid for his sons' education in Maine and later their college tuitions at Amherst; he subscribed to the Massachusetts Spy and the Antislavery Standard so that they might envision the world beyond the rocky promontory of Coy's Hill. There his 145- acre property ended, though neither the view nor his expectations for his sons did. In his will he left his land and money disproportionately to his sons, for he expected his daughters to be supported by their husbands. Sarah, his youngest daughter, was outraged by this favoritism, but by 1864, when her father died, Lucy did not expect otherwise.

For years the rebellious Lucy clashed with her father, even as she tried to gain his attention by good works, serving as a surrogate housekeeper, doing well in school, and even helping to repair his homemade shoes. "There was only one will in my family and it was my father's," Lucy Stone remembered, and it was a will enforced by insults and physical force. For a lifetime she blushed at the memory of his cruel comparison of her round face in its heaviness, rough texture, and shape to a blacksmith's apron. It would light no sparks, he said, wondering aloud whether his daughter with the large mole above her upper lip, unlike her pretty sister Sarah, would ever find a husband among the local boys who were the only ones she knew.

Lucy retaliated. When the congregation of the West Brookfield Congregational Church debated the issue of whether women should speak in public as the South Carolina-born abolitionists Angelina and Sarah Grimké were doing in their lecture tours, Lucy embarrassed her father by insisting on voting, as no other woman did. Again and again she raised her hand for the affirmative, until the pastor finally rebuked her. Women might be church members, Deacon Henshaw instructed, but they were not voting members. In the end the congregation voted to accept the pastoral letter written by the leaders of the Congregational Church that condemned Angelina Grimké's lecturing. Women violated biblical edict if they spoke in public. The reason given was that the character of any woman who spoke in public became unnatural — too independent and "overshadowing of the elm." Later when Lucy lectured in the West Brookfield meeting hall, her father, humiliated that any daughter of his would speak in public and even more heretically on the rights of women, buried his face in his hands. Still it pleased Lucy that a father who once called her a slut had come at all.

When Lucy proposed to her parents that she attend Oberlin College in faraway Ohio, Francis Stone refused to help. So she began a campaign to pay her own way, teaching in the district school for sixteen dollars a month, selling chestnuts and berries, and sewing shoes in the piecework household economy that still prevailed in western Massachusetts. Sometimes she took one of her mother's homemade cheeses to market and bargained for the highest price. It took nine years to save the necessary seventy dollars for the first year's room and tuition at Oberlin, but the process educated Lucy Stone in the uses of patience and determination. Having arrived at college in the summer of 1843 after a lonely five-hundred-mile journey by railroad to Buffalo, and then by steamer across Lake Erie to Cleveland (where she slept on deck), and finally by coach to the small town of Oberlin, Ohio, twenty-five-year-old Lucy proudly reported that, "in the words of Father I passed muster."

But the battle was not over; indeed, for Lucy Stone, the struggle never ended. Now she must find the means to pay her tuition and board for her remaining years at Oberlin, though her crowded daily schedule required that she rise at four in the morning, attend recitations of Latin, Greek, and algebra after breakfast, write compositions in the afternoon, and study in the evening. Her father was so impressed with her hard work that he agreed to a fifteen-dollar loan the next year, with the stipulation that it must be promptly repaid after Lucy graduated. With this in mind, on Saturdays Lucy cleaned homes for three cents an hour and taught reading and writing to a class of African American men, some former slaves, for twelve and a half cents an hour. Her students, at first, were outraged that their teacher was a woman.

Since its founding in 1833 Oberlin College had pioneered interracial coeducation, awarding degrees to both white women (three had graduated before Lucy's arrival) and African American men. The arrival in 1835 of a group of refugee students and faculty protesting the stifling of antislavery views at the Lane Seminary in Cincinnati reinforced the institution's commitment to abolitionism. Its faculty promoted the views of perfectionists who believed that man's sins could be atoned for by conversion experiences inspired by Christ's death on the cross. They also promoted the view that Oberlin students must dedicate themselves to the hard duty of improving self and society. As Lucy wrote her sister, "you never heard such scorching, plain, personal, political preaching as we get there. Individuals are called out by name." The effect was to inculcate an approach to reform based on changing the minds of individuals who would be converted in public meetings by listening to inspired orators and prophets foretelling a better world. Thereafter the wayward would read propaganda and follow the example of ministers and reformers. Such were the means Lucy used for the rest of her life.

Soon Lucy was known as a radical even among radicals. Before her arrival at Oberlin her future sister-in-law Antoinette (Nette) Brown was warned to beware the eccentric Lucy Stone, who not only read William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper the Liberator but who also talked about how to end women's oppression. She deserved her reputation. Prevented from debating with the male students after reading assignments in Porter's Rhetorical Reader and Whately's Logic and Rhetoric, she organized a club for female students off-campus. Because wearing a hat in church induced the migraine headaches she suffered from throughout her life, she fought against the requirement and won the partial concession that hatless she might sit in the back of the church. For inspiration she hung in her tiny room a lithograph of Garrison, who had been jailed in Baltimore for challenging the U.S. Constitution, in its allowance of slavery, as an agreement with the Devil and a covenant with hell.

There were limits to Oberlin's tolerance. Chosen by her classmates to present an essay at graduation, Lucy Stone was forbidden to read it before an audience of men and women — a so-called promiscuous gathering — although she could, as other seniors did, read it to the Lady Board of Managers and the other female students. Or she could have another graduate — necessarily a man — read her paper. Lucy acknowledged her agony, for she had worked tirelessly to place among the top students and deserved the honor. But in the end principle won and she refused to write, much less read, any essay to a gender-segregated audience. Already disposed to her lifelong habit of martyrdom, she would never, she wrote her mother, surrender her principles for some worldly honor.

When she graduated in 1847, Lucy Stone was nearly thirty years old. Along with her college degree, she had absorbed essential training in the efficacy of self-help. But rather than a cause for celebrating obstacles overcome, her struggles and unremitting labor at Oberlin reinforced an earlier tendency toward the inspiration of tormented sacrifice. Disappointment became her talisman. In 1855, to a large audience in Cincinnati, she acknowledged as much: "From the first years to which my memory stretches, I have been a disappointed woman ... In education, in marriage, in religion, in everything, disappointment is the lot of woman." She meant this as a generic comment about the fate of nineteenth-century women, but pessimism, a lifelong habit of mind, permeated her career as a reformer. Twenty years later these predispositions of temperament would drastically affect the suffrage movement.

Unlike most of the women at Oberlin who expected no more than marriage and domesticity, by the time of her graduation Lucy had determined her future. She chose the controversial role of an itinerant lecturer. "I surely would not be a public speaker if I sought a life of ease for it will be a most laborious one; nor would I do it for the sake of honor for I know that I shall be disesteemed, may even be hated by some who are now friends." She would not teach school as her family hoped, but would labor for the freedom of the slave and the salvation of her sex. In biblical paraphrase, she believed that "while I hear the wild shriek of the slave mother or muffled groan of the daughter spoiled of her virtue and do not open my mouth, am I not guilty?" She sought "no life of ease or wealth ... nor existence of ease or indolence which eats at the energy of the soul."

Lucy's younger, now-married sister was astonished: "I don't hardly know what you mean by laboring for the restoration and salvation of our sex, but I conclude you mean a salvation from some thralldom imposed by men." Sarah, unlike her sister, did not feel "burdened by anything man has laid upon me, be sure I can't vote but what care I for that? I would not if I could." Besides their brothers and husbands would "as quick legislate for the interests of their wives and sisters as their own." Sarah ended with an unequivocal, "Father says you better come home and get a schoolhouse."

Sarah was expressing two positions that by the end of the nineteenth century became the most popular arguments of suffrage opponents: women did not want the vote and in any case husbands, fathers, and brothers represented the public interests of women and children. For the rest of her life Lucy Stone contested such traditional thinking about the oppression of women and the insufferable ways females were treated in their homes. She had learned both in her own home.

Clearly the life of an itinerant antislavery agent and women's rights advocate precluded marriage. Years before her graduation from Oberlin, Lucy had fathomed that marriage, like all institutions, from political parties to the church and colleges, favored men, giving women neither status nor protection. Yet for nearly all women, marriage was their entirety, with its incessant childbearing, running of the house, and deference to husbands for whom the fact of having a wife was merely an incident. For Lucy Stone a wedding meant a loss of identity, the physical revulsion at marital sex, and intellectual suffocation in the prison of an isolated home. She knew that she would lose her name and the good money earned from her increasingly popular lecture tours. (In 1854 she earned nearly five thousand dollars.) But most of all she would lose the ability to serve the cause of women's rights that she once likened to raising a daughter with its opportunities for ceaseless attention and worry, but gratifying, purposeful hard work.


Excerpted from Sisters by Jean H. Baker. Copyright © 2005 Jean H. Baker. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Jean H. Baker teaches history at Goucher College and is the author of James Buchanan and Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Jean H. Baker is a professor of history at Goucher College. She is the author of several books, including The Stevensons, Mary Todd Lincoln, Margaret Sanger, and Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

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