Antoinette Louisa Brown Blackwell (1825-1921) made history when she became the first woman in the United States to be ordained by a recognized congregation.
In addition to her career as a preacher, Blackwell spent many years delivering speeches on behalf of the temperance movement, the abolition of slavery, and the right of women to vote. She often toured with well-known suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Blackwell was particularly influenced and emboldened by her friendship with abolitionist and suffragist Lucy Stone, a friend from college who later became a sister-in-law.
Antoinette Louisa Brown was born May 20, 1825, in Henrietta, New York, the seventh of Abigail Morse and Joseph Brown's ten children. The family had a strong religious tradition. Together they frequented the Protestant revivals of Charles Grandison Finney in Rochester, New York. Blackwell's pious leanings were evident at an early age when the nine-year old girl asked to become a member of the family's Congregational Church. As Blackwell's faith grew, her mother and minister encouraged her to become a foreign missionary. Even though such a profession was unheard-of for a young woman at that time, Blackwell harbored the dream of becoming a minister.
Fought for Education
At the time Blackwell finished her secondary education, Ohio's Oberlin College was the only institution of higher learning in the United States open to women. Therefore, in the spring of 1846, Blackwell traveled there to further her education. She completed a non-degree "Ladies Literary Course" in 1847. At Oberlin she developed a friendship with Lucy Stone, a staunch abolitionist and feminist who had begun her studies three years before Blackwell. The two women bristled against the college's strict rules for women, which included barring women from public speaking and forbidding women from walking with members of the opposite sex. As resistance to the school's paternalistic control, the women organized a secret debating society; they later claimed it was the first organized club for college women.
Blackwell's studies kept her from attending the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. In Ohio, Blackwell was busy forging her own path as a feminist by petitioning for acceptance into Oberlin's theological department. Lucy Stone wrote to her in 1849 lamenting Blackwell's decision to continue her education by studying theology. Stone was concerned that her friend's spirit would be destroyed by the difficulty of forcing her way into what was seen as a man's world. "The fact that you have entered a field forbidden to women, will be a good to the sex, but I half fear it will be purchased at too dear a rate," Stone lamented in a letter reprinted in Friends and Sisters: Letters Between Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, 1846-93. "You have been tried there, and the trial, has brought to light noble traits in your character, and I love you all the better for what you have so nobly suffered. But do keep a free spirit my dear dear Nette."
For Blackwell, the desire to become a preacher outweighed the trouble she knew she would have to endure. "From the time in her youth when she declared her intention to enter the ministry," Carol Lasser and Marlene Deahl Merrill wrote in the introduction to Friends and Sisters, "her desires to prove woman's intellectual capacity and to insure the social equality of women and men were framed in religious and theological terms. Her ordination in 1853 represented the culmination of the first stage of her development, marking for both herself and the world the competence of woman to pursue a pastoral role."
Much as Stone had earlier feared, Blackwell's struggles nearly got the best of her. Although Blackwell finished her theological coursework in 1850, and was allowed to preach just as her male colleagues, her professors would not grant her degree. She never received an official diploma, even though nearly sixty years later, in 1908, the president of the college would invite Blackwell back to Oberlin to receive an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree.
Blackwell's struggles continued after she left Oberlin. She searched in vain for a church to serve, finally becoming the minister of a church that was notorious locally for its difficulty in filling the position, having previously engaged a black minister and a seminary student. Finally, in the spring of 1853, Blackwell was hired at a salary of $300 a year by the South Butler Congregational Church of Wayne County, New York. Her ordination in August made Blackwell the first woman ordained as minister of a recognized church.
That same year, Blackwell sparked controversy when she traveled to New York City as a delegate to the World Temperance Convention. Despite the fact that she was an ordained minister, organizers refused to allow Blackwell to speak on the grounds that she was a woman.
Within a few months, Blackwell began to understand that her ideals and those of the Congregational church were incompatible. She left her church position in July of 1854 and traveled to her parents' house to rest. "Her resignation from this post indicated her recognition of the difficulty of reconciling traditional Protestant church doctrines and structures with her commitment to the equality of the sexes," Lasser and Merrill wrote. "But her later writings made clear that she never abandoned her belief in the power of Christianity, nor did she ever accept that religion and women's autonomy were antithetical."
It would be more than twenty years before Blackwell found a church where she felt comfortable. She became a Unitarian in 1878, and served All Souls Unitarian Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey, from 1908 until her death.
Married with Children
Love struck the serious-minded minister in 1853 when, at a temperance convention in New York City, she met Samuel Charles Blackwell, a businessman who shared her belief in the equality of the sexes. His sisters included Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn the M.D. degree from a U.S. medical school, and Dr. Emily Blackwell. The couple was married in 1856, a year after Blackwell's friend Lucy Stone married Samuel Blackwell's brother, Henry Browne Blackwell, turning the long-time friends into sisters as well. Samuel Blackwell died in 1901.
Aspiring to model her career as a wife, mother, and activist on that of another famous early feminist, Blackwell wrote to Lucy Stone in 1850 for advice. "How many children has Lucretia Mott?" Blackwell asked, in a letter reprinted in Friends and Sisters. "Please give me a brief sketch of her history. I have a particular use for it. Are her children intelligent, respectable, and well trained? How did she manage to bring them all up and still speak so much in public? If you can tell me a few things about her I shall be much obliged. I admire her character far as I know it."
Blackwell embarked on her career as a mother, eventually giving birth to seven children, five of whom survived into adulthood. Her first daughter, Florence Brown Blackwell, was born in November 1856. After the birth of her daughter Mabel Blackwell in April of 1858, Blackwell received an admonishing letter, reprinted in The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, from her friend and colleague Susan B. Anthony. "Now Nette, not another baby, is my peremptory command-two will solve the problem, whether a woman can be any thing more than a wife and mother better than a half dozzen, or Ten even-" Anthony wrote. "What man would dream of going before the public on such an occasion as the one of to night-tired and worn from such a multitude of engrossing cares-It is not best to have to many irons in the fire at one time-"
Baby Mabel Blackwell died in August 1858. The following summer, Blackwell embarked on a lecture tour with Susan B. Anthony, but the friends must have agreed to disagree on the matter of family, for Blackwell continued her motherhood project. In December 1860, Blackwell gave birth to Edith Brown Blackwell. The next spring, the Civil War began. Grace Brown Blackwell was born in May 1863, Agnes Brown Blackwell in 1866, and Ethel Brown Blackwell in 1869. Both Edith and Ethel Blackwell would become doctors like their aunts Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell.
In addition to mothering her brood of daughters, Blackwell traveled extensively, an unusual feat considering the expense and difficulty of travel at the time. Among other places, Blackwell visited Alaska, England, the Middle East, and Central and South America.
Although Blackwell is best known for her groundbreaking ordination, she remains a significant founding mother of the suffrage movement, which sought to secure the right of women to vote by way of an amendment to the Constitution. In addition to her work as a traveling preacher, Blackwell delivered speeches promoting women's rights, sometimes touring with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who led the National Women Suffrage Association for 50 years.
Public speaking was a particular gift. After a speech at a temperance convention, Anthony wrote to Lucy Stone that "Antoinette's address in the Capital was a grand one, the friends felt that she outdid herself even." The letter was reprinted in The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Blackwell continually sought inspiration from sister-in-law Lucy Stone, founder of the American Woman Suffrage Association, which merged with Anthony and Stanton's group in 1890. Stone also established and edited the Woman's Journal, a suffrage newspaper that printed articles by Blackwell.
In addition to her contributions to Woman's Journal, Blackwell wrote extensively on evolution, feminism, and religion. Her books include: Studies in General Science (1869), The Sexes Throughout Nature (1875), The Physical Basis of Immortality (1876), The Philosophy of Individuality (1893), The Making of the Universe (1914), and The Social Side of Mind and Action (1915). She also penned a novel, The Island Neighbors (1871), and a book of poems.
David Robinson, in The Unitarians and the Universalists, described Blackwell's The Sexes throughout Nature (1875) as "a feminist critique of the evolutionary theories of Darwin and Spencer, in which she argued that nature demonstrated the equality of sexes throughout the species."
Blackwell remained active at what, even today, would be considered an unusually advanced age. In her biography of Blackwell, Elizabeth Cazden quoted one of Blackwell's later writings. "As a woman whose husband scorned the idea of an obedient wife and did loyal service, in teaching human equality of rights and privileges," Blackwell wrote, "I will never give my adherence to an exclusively male-made and a male-administered government in family, in church or in state. I, who lived and saw the evils of that awful dispensation, and early protested with heart and voice and still protest. Women's future part in civil, religious, society and domestic world-making remains to unfold itself."
After her farewell sermon at All Souls Unitarian Church in New Jersey, Cazden reported, the Boston Globe called Blackwell "in many respects the most remarkable woman in the country." One of the few early suffragists to live long enough to see their efforts come to fruition, Blackwell voted in her first presidential election in November 1920. She died almost a year to the day later, on November 5, 1921, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, at the age of 96. The Nineteenth Amendment, which holds that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex," officially became part of the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1926.
Cazden, Elizabeth. Antoinette Brown Blackwell, The Feminist Press, 1983.
Friends and Sisters: Letters between Lucy Stone and Antoinette
Brown Blackwell, 1846-93, edited by Carol Lasser and Marlene Deahl Merrill, University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Robinson, David. The Unitarians and the Universalists, Greenwood Press, 1985.
Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: Volume One: In the School of Anti-Slavery, 1840 to 1866, edited by Ann D. Gordon, Rutgers University Press, 1997.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, http://www.Britannica.com, (December 12, 2000.)
Women in American History, http://www.Women.eb.com, (December 12, 2000.)