Lucy Stone: Woman of Firsts

Lois K. Porter

Lucy Stone made history. Elizabeth Cady Stanton considered her “the first person by whom the heart of the American public was deeply stirred on the woman question,” and her biographer, Elinor Rice Hays, called her “Morning Star.”

Independent in mind and spirit from her earliest years, she was the first woman in Massachusetts and one of the first in the world to earn a college degree. The first woman in the United States to keep her own name after she married, Lucy added to our language the expression “a Lucy Stoner” for women who do the same. An innovator even in death, she was the first person in New England to be cremated. Today we would call her a humanist.

Lucy was the eighth of nine children born to Francis Stone and Hannah Matthews Stone. She was born August 13, 1818, on a farm on Coy’s Hill, three-and-a-half miles from West Brookfield, Massachusetts. Her ancestor Gregory Stone came to America in 1635 seeking religious freedom, and in 1644 he was a member of a committee formed to oppose government without representation. Lucy made a protest against paying taxes for the same reason more than two hundred years later.

She seemed incapable of fear, had a strong and independent nature, and found her purpose in life at an early age. As a child, Lucy observed that women were completely under the domination of men and that her mother, as well as her father, felt this was not only natural but right. Her father assured her that this principle was proclaimed in the Bible. Lucy, being brought up in a God-fearing home, took the Bible seriously but could not believe women would be so unfairly dealt with in the holy book.

One day while reading the Bible Lucy found the passage: “Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” She was devastated. In addition to vowing that she would never marry, Lucy asked her mother, “Is there anything that will put an end to me?” (Give me liberty or give me death!) She made up her mind to go to college and study Greek and Hebrew so she could read the Bible in the original, hoping to discover that the texts had not been translated correctly.

Lucy’s father approved of her brothers’ desire to go to college, but thought Lucy must be crazy to want such an education. Nothing could dissuade her, however. She read everything she could get her hands on, which meant chiefly such uplifting papers as the Massachusetts Spy, the Advocate of Moral Reform, and the Youth’s Companion. When she was older she subscribed to the Liberator and the Anti-Slavery Standard.

Lucy was allowed to go to school, but her father did not like to buy school books for her, believing it was a waste of money. Undaunted, she gathered chestnuts and berries and sold them to earn money for books. Lucy and other ambitious students, feeling the need for more than the three Rs, took the initiative to find a college student to tutor them. The student/teacher boarded with the Stones.

When her father decided she had had quite enough education for a girl, Lucy appealed to his practical side and asked him to lend her a small amount of money so she could continue school long enough to be qualified to teach. This he agreed to, and at age sixteen Lucy began teaching in district schools, earning one dollar a week and “boarding around” as was the custom. She was a good teacher and was given larger and larger schools until she was earning sixteen dollars a month, considered very good pay for a woman. Later in life, she remarked that “… it cut to the core when the man who taught school no more and no better received $30 … while his sister received only $4.”

While in her teens, Lucy joined the Orthodox Congregational church. At the time the question of slavery was agitating the churches greatly. The deacon of Lucy’s church was expelled for his anti-slavery activities. At the church meeting reviewing his case, Lucy held up her hand to vote, but the minister instructed the vote counter not to count her. When the minister asked, “Isn’t she a member”? The minister answered, “Yes, but she is not a voting member.” Lucy remembered the scorn in his voice the rest of her life. On her deathbed, at the thought of how great the change had been since that time, she told her daughter, “that one uncounted hand” was the only visible protest against the subjugation of women in the church as well as the state.

Lucy was teaching in North Brookfield in 1837 when the General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts held their Quadrennial Conference there. The conference issued a “Pastoral Letter” warning against discussing slavery, and especially against letting women speak in public, at least in part because some women were strongly opposed to slavery. The letter called attention to “dangers which at present seem to threaten the female character with widespread and permanent injury.” It deplored the “mistaken conduct of those who encouraged females to bear an obtrusive and ostentatious part in the measures of reform,” claiming it would lead to “degeneracy and ruin.” During the reading of this letter Lucy, sitting in the gallery with other women and laymen, told her cousin, “If I ever had anything to say in public, I should say it, and all the more because of that pastoral letter.”

Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Abby Kelley, and other women were following Fanny Wright in breaking down the barriers to women speaking in public. This caused strong reactions from the church. After all, St. Paul had said, “Let your women keep silence in churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak”; and, “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp the authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

Men were angry at women’s encroachment upon their exclusive privileges, and in New England, the abolition question posed important economic challenges as well. The belief that the textile industries of the area could not succeed without slave-grown cotton from the South certainly played a strong part in their “righteous” indignation. All of this confirmed Lucy’s doubts about the church.

Lucy studied and taught by turns. Having saved a little money, she managed to go for one term to Quaboag Seminary, and later to Wilbraham Academy. In 1840, from the latter, she wrote to her brother, a Congregational minister:

Only let females be educated in the same manner and with the same advantages that males have, and … I would risk that we would find out our “appropriate sphere.” … I have been exam-ining the doctrine of Christian Perfection, and I cannot avoid the conclusion that it is attainable in this life…. I often think that I have never been a Christian, for how can one who has ever known the love of God go so far away?

It took Lucy nine years to save enough money to go to college. At last, in 1843, at the age of twenty-five, she set off for Oberlin College in Ohio, the only college in the country to admit women at that time. Oberlin had been founded only ten years earlier by Presbyterian ministers in order to educate ministers and teachers for the American West and missionaries for foreign lands, as well as to meet the needs of poor students. No distinction of color or sex was made. In fact, the Reverend John J. Shipherd, one of the founders of Oberlin, stated that one of the prominent objects of the institution was “the elevation of the female character, by bringing within the reach of the misjudged and neglected sex all the instructive privileges which have hitherto unreasonably distinguished the leading sex from theirs.” One might say Lucy and Oberlin were made for one another. But, while the institution and the independent Lucy had much in common, they most certainly did not always see eye to eye.

In the beginning, however, Lucy was elated to have arrived in college at last. Her trip sounds harrowing. She rode the “cars” day and night to Buffalo. From Albany to Utica site she shared a carriage with General Francis Elias Spinner, who was intrigued by the young woman with her nose in a Greek book. They enjoyed long conversations during the trip, and when she became famous and he was Secretary of the Treasury, he often sent her official documents from Washington. Spinner was the first Treasury Secretary to employ women in the department. Perhaps the memory of the independent Lucy was responsible.

Traveling by ship from Buffalo across Lake Erie to Cleveland, Lucy slept on deck in order to save money. She covered the forty miles from Cleveland to Oberlin by stagecoach. The whole trip cost her $16.65, more than a month’s wages teaching school. She never had money enough to go home for a visit during her four years in college and managed one new dress, just in time for her graduation.

During her first two years at Oberlin she did housework and taught preparatory school to support herself. Some students of the college boarded for one dollar a week, but even that was too much for Lucy. She cooked in her room, reducing costs to fifty cents a week.

The long winter vacation, designed so that students could earn money for their education, gave Lucy an opportunity to teach at a special school for adult blacks. At first, black men resented being taught by a woman, but Lucy stood her ground with them and it was not long before they became her admirers and supporters. One day there was a fire in Ladies Hall where Lucy lived. More than one black man appeared at the hall asking where Miss Stone’s trunk was, all of them being interested in saving her possessions.

In her third year at Oberlin her father relented and wrote her, “You can have what you will need, without studying nights, or working for eight cents an hour.” At last, even he was impressed by her determination and hard work.

As open to women and blacks as Oberlin was, it was still more orthodox and conservative than Lucy. She was a “come-outer” and a follower of William Lloyd Garrison, the prominent abolitionist and publisher of the Liberator. The term come outer was derived from the act of leaving church and slamming the door in mid-sermon as a protest against the preacher’s views on slavery. Lucy lamented in a letter home that there was not “a single Liberator man, woman, or child here but me.”

A certain Professor Finney was famous for his fire-and-brimstone sermons at the college, and often rained scorn on Garrisonians and “come-outers.” Perhaps Finney’s sermons were the final blow to any allegiance Lucy still felt to the Orthodox church. In any case, sometime during her years at Oberlin, Lucy became a Unitarian. She informed her family of plans to write for something called the Public Library Item. “I intend to tell some plain truths about the prevailing religion of the country,” she told them.

At the time of her graduation from Oberlin, Lucy was one of those chosen to write an essay to he read at commencement exercises. Graduation ceremonies took place in a church and, as it was thought unsuitable for women to speak in church when men would be on the same platform, it had been the custom for women graduates who wrote essays to have them read by a male professor. Of course, this was unacceptable to Lucy so she refused to write the essay. Even Oberlin President Mahan argued with the faculty for the women’s privilege to read for themselves, to no avail. He then tried to persuade Lucy to relent, but she stood firm. It became a cause célèbre with students on both sides of the issue.

Paradoxically, Lucy’s close friend, Antoinette Brown, was allowed to read her essay when she graduated the very next day. The difference was that Antoinette had pursued the “Ladies Literary Course” while Lucy took the same classical course as male students. During the graduation exercises for the Ladies Course only women would be on the platform, except for President Mahan. Somehow, that was deemed proper.

When Oberlin celebrated its semicentennial, thirty-six years later, Lucy was invited to be one of the speakers at the gathering, the only woman on the program. According to her daughter, Lucy always had warm affection for her alma mater despite their differences.

By coincidence, a group of abolitionists happened to be lecturing at Oberlin at the time of Lucy’s graduation. These included her hero, William Lloyd Garrison, Stephen S. Foster (not the composer, but a famous abolitionist who later married Abby Kelley), and Frederick Douglass. Garrison wrote to his wife about Lucy, “She is a very superior young woman, and has a soul as free as the air, and is preparing to go forth as a lecturer, particularly in vindication of the rights of women. Her course here has been firm and independent, and she has caused no small uneasiness to the spirit of sectarianism in the institution.” It was just the beginning of a long association in the cause of freedom and human rights to which both Lucy and Garrison devoted their lives.

After graduation, Lucy returned home and almost immediately began lecturing in public, much to her mother’s consternation. At first, she lectured widely for the Anti-Slavery Society, but could not resist speaking about the plight of women as well. Her greatest asset as a speaker was her beautiful speaking voice, and as she became more experienced she became more and more eloquent. After hearing Lucy speak, Susan B. Anthony decided to devote her life to the cause of woman’s suffrage, and she was not the only person so moved by the force of Lucy’s voice and conviction.

When speaking in public, Lucy was often set upon by angry mobs, and was even doused with water on one occasion, but continued her speech undeterred. Once when Lucy was sharing a platform with Stephen S. Foster, the mob became ugly. She urged Foster to escape quickly. As a large fellow with a club in his hand mounted the stage, Foster exclaimed. “But who will protect you?” Lucy looked at the approaching giant and said, “This gentleman will take care of me,” and he did. Not only did he see Lucy safely through the mob with Lucy talking to him all the while, but finally stood her up on a stump outside the hall and told the crowd to be quiet so they might hear what she had to say. After her talk, the same fellow collected twenty dollars to buy Foster a new coat to replace the one torn in the melee.

One letter to the Liberator describing a talk by Lucy stated,

Her subject was the cause of the existence … of slavery in this land…. These causes were: first, the government; then the reli-gion of the country. She drew a true, terribly true picture of the Whig, Democratic and Free Soil parties…. Then she took up the Church, and showed how [its] altars stand in a sea of blood and tears drawn by deep and unmitigated cruelty and injustice from three millions of slaves.

“Above all, Lucy Stone was a free spirit who thought for herself and fought for the rights of every human being to live life free from masters or dogma.”

Lucy was called an infidel, and in 1851 was expelled from the West Brookfield congregation because she had “engaged in a course of life evidently inconsistent with her covenant engagements to this church.” Her joining the Unitarians while at Oberlin may also have had something to do with the action of the West Brookfield church.

Lucy was convinced from childhood that she would never marry. But she had reckoned without Henry B. Blackwell. A man of great ability, charm, wit, and energy, he was utterly captivated by Lucy when he heard her speak in 1853. He enlisted the help of Garrison and others and finally went to Coy’s Hill to meet her. Lucy was a great admirer of his sister, Elizabeth Blackwell, the pioneer woman physician, but she reiterated her determination never to marry. It took him two years, but Henry finally convinced Lucy that he agreed with her strong feelings regarding the laws limiting women’s rights and was prepared to devote his life to the cause with the same devotion she had shown.

Not only did Lucy become the first woman in the country to retain her name upon marriage, simply exchanging Mrs. for Miss, but the couple drew up an amazing pre-nuptial statement. This precedent-making document began:

White acknowledging our mutual affection by publicly assuming the relationship of husband and wife, yet, in justice to ourselves and a great principle, we deem it a duty to declare that this act on our part implies no sanction of, nor promise of voluntary obedi-ence to, such of the present laws of marriage as refuse to recog-nize the wife as an independent rational being, while they confer upon the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority, invest-ing him with legal powers which no honorable man would exer-cise, and which no man should possess.

It went on to list six specific laws against which they especially protested, and ended, “Thus reverencing law, we enter protest against rules and customs which are unworthy of the name, since they violate justice, the essence of law.”

Although in 1855 Lucy and Henry’s marriage statement was revolutionary, it was not the first time a man had given up his marital rights. Four years before Lucy and Henry wed, John Stuart Mill, when marrying Harriet Taylor, had signed a statement relinquishing “these odious powers.” It is probably not coincidental that Taylor had been greatly impressed by Lucy’s speech at the First National Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850, which she read in the Westminister Review The same speech was what Susan B. Anthony said had converted her to woman suffrage.

The First National Woman’s Rights Convention truly launched the woman’s suffrage movement in the United States. There were more than one thousand people present, and if the hall had been larger, there probably would have been more. Among the speakers were Lucy, Lucretia Mott, William Lloyd Garrison, Stephen and Abby Foster, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass.

A national convention was held every year, and, until her marriage, Lucy did most of the work of organizing, afterward publishing the report of the proceedings at her own expense. At the third convention in 1853, Anthony made her debut. At this time Lucy often wore the Bloomer dress that, though invented by Elizabeth Smith Miller for comfort and convenience, was taken up and made famous by the better known Mrs. Amelia Bloomer, editor of Lily, the first women’s newspaper.

Lucy was an active. important, and vital player in the drama or human rights in general and woman’s suffrage in particular by the time of her marriage. Henry, true to his promise, devoted the rest of his life to the same cause with only enough time away from it to earn a good living.

With some time off to raise their only child, Alice, Lucy devoted the rest of her life to this cause. At about 1869 there was a serious split in the suffrage movement. Anthony, Stanton, and others in the National Woman Suffrage Association chose to work chiefly for congressional, or national, action on the suffrage question. On the other hand, Lucy, Henry, Garrison, and others through the American Woman Suffrage Association worked for equal suffrage state by state. The two sides were finally reconciled in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association largely through the efforts of Lucy’s daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell.

The year 1869 also marked great changes in the lives of Lucy, Henry, and Alice. Henry, through his activities in real estate, book publishing, and sugar refining, had gained a certain financial independence, and was, therefore, able to spend all of his time on the cause most important in their lives. They moved from New Jersey to Boston, which was the center of the most active woman suffrage organization in existence. This was the New England Association, which Lucy had helped to launch and which had parented a group of flourishing state societies.

At this time Lucy fulfilled her dream, to have her own newspaper. The paper was called The Woman’s Journal and had an unbroken existence of forty-seven years, continued after Lucy’s death by Henry and Alice. Mary A. Livermore, its first editor, moved back to her native Massachusetts from Chicago in order to merge her paper, the Agitator, with the Journal. In addition to Lucy, other contributors included Olin Ward Howe, William Lloyd Garrison, and Henry. The paper was published weekly in Boston and Chicago and had correspondents from England, Europe, and more remote spots on the globe. Over the years, The Woman’s Journal took up many causes in addition to suffrage, including coeducation and more comfortable and healthful dress for women (shades of Amelia Bloomer).

In 1879 Francis Parkman asked a group of suffragists, including Lucy, to answer an attack on woman suffrage he had made in his North American Review The controversy ran to fifty pages. Among other things, Lucy commented that “ever since Adam found it convenient to lay the blame of a certain transaction, in which he had a large share, upon Eve, there has been a long line of his male descendants who have followed his example at every possible opportunity.”

Throughout her life, Lucy’s appearance had amazed strangers who expected to encounter a large and aggressive woman. Her fresh, girlish appearance of earlier years gave way when she reached sixty to the look of a composed, round-faced, plump, motherly looking woman. And looks were not deceiving. When not on the lecture circuit, Lucy was a most domestic woman, and a loving and devoted wife and mother. Even in her sixties, she traveled extensively, campaigning for suffrage in various states.

In 1883 Lucy and her Oberlin friend, Antoinette (by then married to a brother of Henry), returned to their alma mater where the women were to speak at the Jubilee. Henry accompanied them, and although it was a delight for the two women, Henry had other thoughts, writing to Alice,

One day I could stand … but a whole week of contact with peo-ple who believe in hell and also mention the devil will, I fear, be too much of these good things for a person of impaired spiritual digestion like myself.

For her part, Lucy still fought orthodoxy wherever she found it. In the spring of 1887, she went for several months to Georgia thinking the warmer climate would help her failing health. While there, she visited a “Negro” school taught by two “Yankee women.” “Excellent women, but so unfit for the place!” Lucy wrote to Alice, “`Do you believe in Gawd!”‘ she quoted them as saying. “`If you do not believe in Gawd you will go to h-e-l-l.” Not Lucy’s idea of the way to teach anything!

Above all, Lucy Stone was a free spirit who thought for herself and fought for the rights of every human being to live life free from masters or dogma.

Lucy died in 1893. She met death with equanimity, calm and at peace with the world and herself. Her last words to her daughter, Alice, can be said to have been her credo: “Make the world better.”



  • Hays, Elinor Rice. Morning Star, New York: Hippocrene Books, 1978.
  • James, Edward T. and Janet W. James, eds. Notable American Women, 1607-1950. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Books, 1971.
  • Willard, Frances E. and Mary A. Livermore, eds. A Woman of the Century, New York: Gordon Press, 1974.

Lois K. Porter

Lois K. Porter is founder and vice president of the Washington Area Secular Humanists and a Secular Humanist Mentor. She graduated from Oberlin College some years after Lucy Stone.