One Step More:
Lucy Stone And The Fight for Woman Suffrage

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Bronze copy of a bust of Lucy Stone by Anne Whitney, 1892

Collections: 30/250 Marlene Deahl Merrill Papers (2001/042)

Taylor Greenthal
Hannah Lemkowitz
Nina Winterbottom



Lucy Stone (1818-1893) was a leading abolitionist and women's rights advocate. An outspoken, passionate 1847 graduate of Oberlin College, Stone later became a prominent figure in the fight for woman suffrage, leading groups such as the American Equal Rights Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association. The documents transcribed in this project explore Stone's evolving attitudes towards suffrage across two decades. Her 1870 letter, written to friend and fellow Oberlin graduate, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, highlights Stone's organizational involvement, as well as the deep rifts growing within the national suffrage movement after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited the denial of the vote to individuals based on their "race, color, or previous condition of servitude," pointedly omitting mention of sex. Stone's 1883 essay, "Oberlin and Woman," composed for Oberlin College's fiftieth anniversary celebration, deploys a strong rhetoric of social justice urging popular mobilization on behalf of woman suffrage. Finally, Stone's short 1892 missive to suffragist Judith Smith reveals aspects of Stone's conservatism with regards to women's respectability.1 These sources are particularly interesting for their reflection of the depth and variety of Stone's vision. Through these three documents, one begins to understand the power and complexity of Lucy Stone's career as a suffragist.

As shown by her stance in the first document, Lucy Stone's feminism was intrinsically linked to her dedication to equal rights for African Americans. In 1866, Stone partnered with feminists and abolitionists Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to found the American Equal Rights Association (AERA). The AERA defined their mission as advocating for the equal rights of all American citizens regardless of race or sex. Soon, however, questions of priorities began to emerge.

The passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution heightened tensions within AERA. While Lucy Stone and other abolitionists continued to lobby for universal rights even after the end of the Civil War, Stanton and Anthony disagreed with the enfranchisement of black men before the enfranchisement of white women. Stanton and Anthony were frustrated by the explicit exclusion of women from the right to vote under the U.S. Constitution. At the 1869 AERA Debates, Stanton's racist sentiments were made apparent. She remarked, "If intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the Government, let the question of woman be brought up first and that of the negro last."2 While Lucy Stone argued that the woman vote has more power to change the country than the black vote, she did not condemn the Fifteenth Amendment. She instead responded,

I thank God for that XV. Amendment...I will be thankful in my soul if any body can get out of the terrible pit. But I believe that the safety of the government would be more promoted by the admission of woman as an element of restoration and harmony than the negro.3

This fundamental difference between the leaders of the woman suffrage movement on the issue of black suffrage contributed to the end of the AERA and the birth of two distinct woman suffrage organizations: the National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Lucy Stone.

In contrast to this atmosphere of conflict, Stone's 1883 essay, "Oberlin and Woman," maintains an attitude of unity and social responsibility. It was presented as part of a public celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Oberlin College, and, as such, the tone of the essay was somewhat different from the tone taken in Stone's letters. In "Oberlin and Woman," Stone placed the fight for suffrage in the context of recent societal change, and notes Oberlin's instrumental role in that change, celebrating in particular her alma mater's status as a pioneer in the collegiate education of women. Stone made no mention of religious subjects in her speech; rather she played upon popular sentiment and ideas of national progress. This strategy was fundamentally different from rhetorical strategies steeped in Christianity used by other prominent advocates of equality. Even other women's contributions to the fiftieth anniversary reflections differed from Lucy Stone's. Sarah C. Little, a graduate of the class of 1859, concluded own her essay on Oberlin with: "May [Oberlin women] continue to make good use of their inheritance, and living lives 'hid with Christ in God,' be filled with the power of godliness."4

Indeed, most nineteenth-century female suffragists relied heavily upon Christian rhetoric to emphasize their point and their respectability. Maria Stewart, an African American journalist and activist, asserted her argument based on her devotion to God, writing: "I...was, as I humbly hope and trust, brought to the knowledge of the truth, as it is in Jesus, in 1830; in 1831, [I] made a public profession of my faith in Christ."5 The Grimke sisters also utilized religion extensively in much of their writing, whether evidencing the Bible or appealing to Christian ladies.6 Thus, Lucy Stone's choice in "Oberlin and Woman" to highlight the humanist notion of an individual's duty to improve society is unusual in the context of previous decades of equal rights rhetoric based upon Christianity and respectability. In Stone's writing, woman suffrage is another stop on the path to social justice, and social justice is the civic, rather than the religious, responsibility of Oberlin and its students.

As Lucy Stone's career progressed, her political writing continued to embrace exemplary female virtue and respectability. The third letter, written just over a year before her death, reflects Stone's ongoing efforts to push for female suffrage based on somewhat traditional notions of womanhood. Writing to Judith Smith about the Homestead Strike of 1892, Stone confessed her concerns about the behavior of the women who had joined male steel workers in terrorizing the Pinkerton guards sent to bring strikebreakers into the mills. If women thought they deserved the right to vote, she mused, they must first learn to exercise "self-control." Despite the potential contradictions of this interpretation of events when juxtaposed to her early secular rhetoric, in this letter, Lucy Stone's passion for universal suffrage is balanced by a strain of conservatism regarding women and labor.

It is interesting, then, to compare Lucy Stone's writings on women in unions and the writing of her fellow crusader, Florence Kelley. Quite in contrast to Lucy Stone, Florence Kelley believed that women's involvement in labor unions was inextricably linked to suffrage. "The lack of the ballot," she wrote, "places the wage-earning woman upon a level of irresponsibility compared with her enfranchised fellow working man. By impairing her standing in the community the general rating of her value as a human being, and consequently as a worker, is lowered."7 By her letter to Judith Smith, it is clear that Stone did not make any such connection, instead upholding for women a model of gendered respectability. Ironically, it is possible that Stone's lack of sympathy for unions may have undercut notions of female agency and thereby contributed unintentionally to the anti-suffrage arguments.

Although Lucy Stone was a central figure in the suffrage movement, it is clear that she, like many of her generation, pursued diverse, and perhaps irreconcilable, strategies in the fight for women's rights. While her commitment to society's conventions of ideal, pure femininity seems in stark contrast with her humanist pleas to Oberlin College to do more for women's rights, as well as her lifelong commitment to universal suffrage, recognizing these tensions in her rhetoric illuminates tensions that existed within the larger suffrage movement as well. For her devotion and passion to the cause, Lucy Stone remains a dynamic figure within the women's movement and the fight for racial equality.

[1] Lucy Stone to Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Friends and Sisters: Letters between Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, 1846-93, Carol Lasser and Marlene Deahl Merrill ed., (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 177. Lucy Stone, "Oberlin and Woman," in The Oberlin Jubilee, W. G. Ballantine ed., (Oberlin, OH: E. J. Goodrich, 1883). Lucy Stone to Judith Smith, Loving Warriors: selected letters of Lucy Stone and Henry B. Blackwell, 1835-1983, Leslie Wheeler ed., (New York; The Dial Press, 1981).

[2] Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, "Debates at the 1869 May Anniversary of the American Equal Rights Association," History of Woman Suffrage, Volume II, last modified Feb. 2009,

[3] Lucy Stone, "Oberlin and Woman."

[4] Sarah C. Little, "Oberlin and the Education of Women," in The Oberlin Jubilee, W. G. Ballantine ed., (Oberlin, OH: E. J. Goodrich, 1883).

[5] Maria W. Stewart, "Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build" in Maria W. Stewart Presented to the First Africa Baptist Church & Society, of the City of Boston, (Boston: Friends of Freedom and Virtue, 1835).

[6] Sarah Grimke to Mary S. Parker, "The Original Equality of Woman" in Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman. (Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1838). Angelina Grimke, "Appeal To The Christian Women of the South." (New York: New York Anti-Slavery Society, 1836).

[7] Florence Kelley, Working Woman's Need of the Ballot. In History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 4: 1883-1900, edited by Susan B. Anthony and Ida Husted Harper. Rochester, NY: Privately published 1902