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Lucy Stone Biography

A Soul as Free as the Air


Lucy Stone 1865

Lucy Stone, about 1865

Getty Images / Hulton Archive
Lucy Stone

Lucy Stone

Courtesy Library of Congress

Also: Lucy Stone Facts | Lucy Stone Pictures | Lucy Stone Quotes

Lucy Stone: in her lifetime, she achieved a number of important "firsts" for which we can remember her. She was the first woman in Massachusetts to earn a college degree. She even achieved a "first" at death, by being the first person in New England to be cremated. She's remembered most for one first: being the first woman in the United States to keep her own name after marriage.

Considered on the radical edge of women's rights at the beginning of her speaking and writing career, she's usually considered a leader of the conservative wing of the suffrage movement in her later years. The woman whose speech in 1850 converted Susan B. Anthony to the suffrage cause, later split with Anthony over strategy and tactics, splitting the suffrage movement into two major branches after the Civil War.

Lucy Stone was born on the 13th of August, 1818, on her family's Massachusetts farm. She was the eighth of nine children, and as she grew up, she watched as her father ruled the household, and his wife, by "divine right." Disturbed when her mother had to beg her father for money, she was also unhappy with the lack of support in her family for her education. She was faster at learning than her brother -- but he was to be educated, she was not.

She was inspired in her reading by the Grimke sisters, who were abolitionists but also proponents of women's rights. When the Bible was quoted to her, defending the positions of men and women, she declared that when she grew up, she'd learn Greek and Hebrew so she could correct the mistranslation that she was sure was behind such verses!

Her father would not support her education, so she alternated her own education with teaching, to earn enough to continue. She attended several institutions, including Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1839. By age 25 (1843), she had saved enough to fund her first year at Oberlin College in Ohio, the country's first college to admit both women and blacks.

After four years of study at Oberlin College, all the while teaching and doing housework to pay for the costs, Lucy Stone graduated (1847). She was asked to write a commencement speech for her class. But she refused, because someone else would have had to read her speech: women were not allowed, even at Oberlin, to give a public address.

So, shortly after Stone returned to Massachusetts, the first woman in that state to receive a college degree, she gave her first public speech, on women's rights. She delivered the speech from the pulpit of her brother's Congregational Church in Gardner, Massachusetts.

(Thirty six years after she graduated from Oberlin, she was an honored speaker at Oberlin's fiftieth anniversary celebration.)

"I expect to plead not for the slave only, but for suffering humanity everywhere. Especially do I mean to labor for the elevation of my sex." (1847)

A year after she graduated, Lucy Stone was hired as an agent -- an organizer -- of the American Anti-Slavery Society. In this paid position, she traveled giving speeches on abolition. She included speeches, as well, on women's rights.

William Lloyd Garrison, whose ideas were dominant in the Anti-Slavery Society, said of her, the year she began working with them: "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 very firm and independent, and she has caused no small uneasiness in the spirit of sectarianism in the institution."

When her women's rights speeches created too much controversy within the Anti-Slavery Society -- was she diminishing her efforts on behalf of the abolition cause? -- she arranged to separate the two ventures, speaking on weekends on abolition and weekdays on women's rights, and charging admission for the speeches on women's rights. In three years, she earned $7,000 with her women's rights talks.

Her radicalism on both subjects brought large crowds; the talks also drew hostility: "people tore down the posters advertising her talks, burned pepper in the auditoriums where she spoke, and pelted her with prayer books and other missiles." (Source: Wheeler, Leslie. "Lucy Stone: Radical Beginnings" in Feminist Theorists: Three Centuries of Key Women Thinkers. Dale Spender, editor. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.)

Having been convinced by using her Greek and Hebrew learned at Oberlin that indeed the Biblical proscriptions on women were badly translated, she challenged those rules in churches which she found to be unfair to women. Raised in the Congregational Church, she was unhappy with their refusal to recognize women as voting members of congregations as well as their condemnation of the Grimke sisters for their public speaking. Finally expelled by the Congregationalists for her views and for her own public speaking, she joined with the Unitarians.

In 1850, Stone was a leader in organizing the first national woman's rights convention, held in Worcester, Massachusetts. The 1848 convention in Seneca Falls had been an important and radical step, but the attendees were mostly from the local area. This was a next step.

At the 1850 convention, Lucy Stone's speech is credited with converting Susan B. Anthony to the cause of woman suffrage. A copy of the speech, sent to England, inspired John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor to publish "The Enfranchisement of Women." Some years later, she also convinced Julia Ward Howe to adopt women's rights as a cause along with abolition. Frances Willard credited Stone's work with her joining the suffrage cause.

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