Review:  A new book places Lucy Stone at forefront of women’s suffrage


Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony are memorialized as leading suffragists in a marble statue in the Rotunda in our nation’s Capitol. In this thought-provoking new biography, Sally G. McMillen argues persuasively that one person is missing from that Mt. Rushmore of women: Lucy Stone.

In the mid-19th century, Stone was one of the most famous women in America. She is counted among the nation’s first women to earn a college degree. She began speaking on women’s suffrage before the Seneca Falls Convention took place and for years toured the United States as a popular public speaker. After the Civil War, she founded both the American Woman Suffrage Assn. and, with her husband, the Woman’s Journal, a suffragist newspaper that was published weekly until women won the right to vote in 1920.

Yet Stone’s story ultimately fell prey to the forces behind a well-worn political adage: History is written by the victors. As her responsibilities increased, Stone ceded the time and energy to write the history of the women’s movement to others, refusing to participate when Stanton, Anthony and Joslyn Gage embarked on this pursuit.


As a result, not surprisingly, Stanton and Anthony “made themselves the movement’s nineteenth-century heroines.” At the same time, personal and ideological differences separating Stone from Stanton and Anthony led to divisions that rippled across the movement, obscuring the complete story of who did what to win the fight for women’s suffrage.

Stone was born in 1818, not far from Worcester, Mass. Her childhood seemed idyllic — Jo March from “Little Women” comes to mind in the book’s early pages — but it was filled with hard work to help support her family. Still, Stone was well educated for a woman of her day, and she was determined to become even better educated. Her decision to attend the Oberlin Collegiate Institute required her to travel 650 miles by train, steamboat and stagecoach to Ohio, where she joined six other women in pursuit of a college degree.

At Oberlin, Stone heard stirring debates about abolition; pledged never to marry because of the laws that stripped nearly all rights from married women; and discovered her natural gifts as an orator and a debater. She became incensed by Oberlin’s conservative treatment of women: The school paid female students less than males for the same work (demonstrating that some things never change), and when Stone graduated, she was forbidden to read her senior essay aloud. There was an institutional prohibition on women speaking in public.

Stone, a contrarian by nature, decided to make her living as a public speaker in support of abolition and women’s rights. Because a woman on stage was a “novelty” to audiences of the day, Stone was booked only as warm-up act for famous abolitionists like Wendell Phillips. Slavery was the dominant issue of the time, but the women’s rights movement was finding its footing.

Soon Stone and Stanton learned of one another, and in the aftermath of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 Stanton suggested that Stone be retained to speak on women’s rights across the country. So Stone emerged as one of the leading voices for women in the United States. She also added organizing to her plate and became a co-leader of the first national women’s rights convention in 1850 and many conventions thereafter.

Stone ultimately broke her college pledge and married Henry Browne Blackwell, a man who shared her political convictions. Stirring some controversy, they removed the word “obey” and substituted “partnership of equals” in their marriage vows, and Stone retained her own last name. At the age of 37, she gave birth to a daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell, who would later follow in her footsteps.

The debate over the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race, led to the eruption of the simmering personal and ideological differences between Stone and colleagues Stanton and Anthony, which had profound implications both for the women’s suffrage movement and for Stone personally.

Competing associations formed. One, the National Woman Suffrage Assn., led by Stanton and Anthony, opposed ratification of the 15th Amendment because it included suffrage only for black men. A second, the American Woman Suffrage Assn., led by Stone and others, supported the 15th Amendment, as a “positive move toward universal suffrage.” More than two decades passed before the two factions were reconciled into one organization with unified objectives — the National American Woman Suffrage Assn. — which ultimately became what we know now as the League of Women Voters.

Once the 15th Amendment became law, the national momentum for women’s suffrage stalled even as greater attention was focused on the issue, often in the form of opposition from luminaries such as Harvard President Charles William Eliot (ironic given that Harvard’s president is now a woman). Stone’s call to action never wavered, however, and she continued to find new allies, in part through the Woman’s Journal.

Reading about Stone’s life is an illuminating experience. McMillen’s is a well-told biography that does much to right the narrative of the history that Stone helped to shape. A remarkable woman in a remarkable time, her gaze was trained always on the future. When she died, Stone whispered to her daughter, “Make the world better.” As we go to the polls in 2016 and vote, perhaps for the nation’s first woman president, we would do well to remember Lucy Stone and all that she fought for.

Napolitano is president of the University of California.

Lucy Stone
An Unapologetic Life

Sally G. McMillen
Oxford University Press: 360 pp., $29.95