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Sisters : The lives of America's suffragists /
Jean H. Baker.
1st ed.
New York : Hill and Wang, 2005.
277 p.
0809095289 (hardcover : alk. paper)
More Details
New York : Hill and Wang, 2005.
0809095289 (hardcover : alk. paper)
contents note
The martyr and the missionary : Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell -- In the blessed company of faithful women : Susan B. Anthony and the sisters -- Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the solitude of self -- Mothering America : the feminist ambitions of Frances Willard -- Endgame : Alice Paul and Woodrow Wilson.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter


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."1

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.2

"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.3

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.4

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.5 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.6

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.7

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.8

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.9

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."10

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.11

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.12 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.13

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.14

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.16

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."17

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."18

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.19

Well before Nette Brown married Henry’s brother, Samuel Blackwell, she shared with Lucy the period’s intimate female world of love and affection, with its kisses, embraces while watching sunsets, and long talks in bed. It was a world that had no need of men. "Well, Lucy," Nette agreed, "so you think more than ever you must not get married & there will be a lesson of truth to be learned from our very position which will be impressed deeply on the minds of the people as any we have to teach. Let us stand alone in the great moral battlefield with none but God for a supporter . . . Let them see that woman can take care of herself & act independently without the encouragement & sympathy of her ‘lord & master’ that she can think & talk as a moral agent is priveledged to. Oh no don’t let us get married."20

The Marriage

But charming Henry Blackwell with his long black hair, sky-blue eyes, sparkling white teeth, and abolitionist sentiments persisted. Marriage, he told Lucy, did not have to involve the submission of wives. Certainly he sought no such arrangement and would in fact repudiate supremacy for a "true" marriage with an equal. She need not "feel as though martyrdom would demand refraining from marriage." Well aware of Lucy’s penchant for sacrificial advocacy, Henry encouraged her lecture tours, and even offered to organize them. He would not impede what she called "a vagrant life," nailing her own posters to the trees, living in dirty boarding houses, riding from town to town in uncomfortable buckboard buggies, and everywhere suffering ridicule. With misgivings, he even accepted Lucy’s adoption in the early 1850s of the controversial bloomers. Outraging men, Lucy, along with a handful of other women including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, briefly replaced their tight-laced corsets and inhibiting long dresses with more practical short skirts and comfortable trousers.21

By staying single, in Henry’s view, she was punishing herself worse "than the Southerners treat their Negroes." "I don’t think that either you or I should be less efficient together than separate. Above all I do not believe that we were created only for results ulterior to ourselves. We have a right to be happy in and for ourselves, if not what a stupid thing to make other people happy." Just as a doctor could treat smallpox without infecting himself, so, argued Henry, Lucy could reform marriage without denying herself its pleasant intimacies. "Will you permit the injustice of the world to enforce upon you a life of injustice?" As her husband he would dedicate himself to introducing Lucy to the love and affection of happy families like his own.22

While never offering the standard male promises of protection, which Lucy would not accept anyway, Henry intended to share her reform activities. And he would also tutor her in the "literary culture" about which she knew little—his first gift was a volume of Plato. As Henry Blackwell intended to bring freedom to slaves and women, so he would serve as a missionary to his wife. He would bring her the happiness and good humor of his sunny personality; he would sing and tell stories; and he would prove wrong her ideas about a husband’s impediment to her life’s work.

Still Lucy Stone resisted, explaining in the veiled language of the Victorian that sex revolted her, a natural enough concern given her mother’s mental and physical deterioration following her repeated pregnancies. For Lucy sex inevitably diminished women’s lives because it led to childbirth. When the ever acquiescent Henry delicately suggested that he would place few demands on her, she remembered her mother’s advice that a young man’s vows were quickly forgotten when women became wives.23

Soon Lucy offered other reasons to turn Henry away. Men, she argued, were more immature than women of the same age, and she was, given the conventions of the age, a shocking seven and a half years older than he. She felt even older than that: "Harry, excessive toil and excessive grief gave me a premature womanhood so that I expect a premature physical decay." When he protested that she overestimated "the natural defects of [her] being" as well as the consequences of the differences in their age, Lucy repeated her life’s task: ". . . I do contemplate with proud satisfaction, my lone struggle with Destiny . . ."24

As Henry Blackwell worked to batter through this wall of objections, she held firm, believing, as her suitor did not, that the true reformer lived solely for external causes. "I have been all my life alone. I have shared thought, family and life with myself alone . . . all you are does not come near my ideal of what is necessary to make a marriage relation." Meanwhile Henry (now "Harry" to his "dearest Lucy" after a meeting in Niagara Falls in the fall of 1853) insisted that his idea of marriage was one that required no sacrifice of her public life. "I would not have my wife a drudge . . . I would not even consent that my wife should stay at home to rock the baby when she ought to be addressing a meeting or organizing a society. Perfect equality is the relationship . . . I would have . . ."25

Excerpted from Sisters by Jean H. Baker.
Copyright 2005 by Jean H. Baker.
Published in First edition, 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 2005-09-01:
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. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2005-07-11:
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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
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Publishers Weekly, July 2005
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Library Journal, September 2005
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Table of Contents
Introductionp. 3
The Martyr and the Missionary: Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwellp. 13
In the Blessed Company of Faithful Women: Susan B. Anthony and the Sistersp. 55
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and The Solitude of Selfp. 93
Mothering America: The Feminist Ambitions of Frances Willardp. 137
Endgame: Alice Paul and Woodrow Wilsonp. 183
Afterwordp. 231
Notesp. 241
Indexp. 263
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.

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