The Marriage Protest: The Wedding of Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell

In May 1855, American newspapers were abuzz with talk of a wedding. The bride and groom were not society folk or European royalty: they were Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, abolitionists and women’s rights activists. Although in many ways their wedding ceremony was typical of the time—the bride wore a lovely dress, a clergyman performed the ceremony, and a wedding breakfast followed—it was no ordinary wedding, for it began with a protest.

Lucy Stone was born in a farmhouse on Coy’s Hill near West Brookfield, Massachusetts, on August 13, 1818. As she matured, she became interested in two causes—the abolition of slavery and the expansion of women’s rights—that were to shape her life. When Oberlin College in Ohio began admitting women, Lucy determined to attend, even though it took several years of saving her earnings as a schoolteacher to meet the tuition. At Oberlin, inspired by the women who had taken to the lecture circuit to advocate for the abolitionist cause, she decided to pursue a public speaking career herself.

Lucy Stone (Library of Congress)

Nineteenth-century Americans loved a good speech, and Lucy became quite successful at her chosen career. It was not, however, an easy life. Lucy’s lectures took her to small towns and rustic areas, where she often had to stay in whatever primitive lodgings were available. Lucy also had to brave hostile audiences. At one meeting, someone threw a prayerbook at her; at another, she was squirted with a firehose.

It was in 1850, while Lucy was traveling through Cincinnati, that she first met Henry Browne Blackwell, an abolitionist who also supported women’s rights. He had sterling examples of strong women in his own family: In 1849, his sister Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in America to obtain a medical degree, and his sister Emily would get her own medical degree in 1854. Henry himself, however, had some difficulty in settling to a profession, and finally began running a hardware store in Cincinnati with his brother Samuel.  When Lucy went into the store to cash a check, Henry was intrigued by Lucy, whom he thought might make a suitable bride for Samuel. Accordingly, he delayed payment of the check so that Samuel could deliver the funds to Lucy in person. But Samuel took no interest in Lucy—she was probably not looking her best, having just recovered from typhoid fever—and it would be another three years before Lucy and Henry had their next encounter. (Samuel would go on to marry Antoinette Brown, Lucy’s close friend from Oberlin. Antoinette was another trailblazer: the first American woman to become an ordained minister in a mainstream Protestant denomination.)

Henry B. Blackwell (Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, Lucy had adopted the so-called Bloomer costume (named for Amelia Bloomer, one of its proponents), which was essentially a below-the-knee-length dress worn over pantaloons. The Bloomer garment was hardly immodest, but those women who dared to wear it were continually heckled and harassed. But Lucy, who found it both practical and flattering, was undeterred.

Henry next saw Lucy at the New England Anti-Slavery Convention in 1853.  This time, he was smitten—even though he confided to his brother that he did not care for the Bloomer dress she wore. He sought out abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who gave him a letter of introduction but warned him that Lucy was not interested in marriage. Undaunted, Henry turned up at the Stone family house in Coy’s Hill, where Lucy was standing on a table and whitewashing the ceiling. The pair went for a walk. Lucy consented to correspond with Henry, and he promptly sent her a long letter and a translation of Plato. He also told her that he had “learned to like” the Bloomer costume.

Lucy in the Bloomer costume (Wikipedia)

Over the next few months, Henry relentlessly courted Lucy, in person and by mail. But Lucy was reluctant to wed Henry, even as she admitted that she was growing fond of him. She feared that marriage would deprive her of her cherished freedom.

Finally, in September 1854, Henry made a grand gesture: while traveling on a train bound for Tennessee, he encountered a enslaved girl traveling with her owners. Having asked the girl if she wanted to be free, and received an affirmative answer, he put her off the train in Salem, Ohio, with the help of an accomplice who fled with her. Years later, he said, “I was told later that this act of mine was what gained me my wife. If that was so, I received the most heavenly reward that ever came to earthly man for any deed.” By December 1854, the couple were engaged, despite Lucy’s lingering doubts. “You are your own mistress & always will remain so,” Henry assured her. He suggested that the two make a protest against the laws governing marriage, which heavily favored the man. Several other reforming couples had done the same in years past.

The wedding took place at Lucy’s family home on May 1, 1855. Lucy, who had finally given into public pressure and had nearly abandoned Bloomers for public wear, wore a silk dress, colored in the shade known as “ashes of roses”; Henry wore a mulberry coat and white waistcoat. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a fellow activist who was then a Unitarian minister, officiated. First, however, the couple read the “Protest” which they had drawn up. It reads:

While we acknowledge 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 obedience to such of the present laws of marriage, as refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being, while they confer upon the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority, investing him with legal powers which no honorable man would exercise, and which no man should possess. We protest especially against the laws which give to the husband:

1. The custody of the wife’s person.

2. The exclusive control and guardianship of their children.

3. The sole ownership of her personal, and use of her real estate, unless previously settled upon her, or placed in the hands of trustees, as in the case of minors, lunatics, and idiots [intellectually disabled persons].

4. The absolute right to the product of her industry.

5. Also against laws which give to the widower so much larger and more permanent interest in the property of his deceased wife, than they give to the widow in that of the deceased husband.

6. Finally, against the whole system by which “the legal existence of the wife is suspended during marriage,” so that in most States, she neither has a legal part in the choice of her residence, nor can she make a will, nor sue or be sued in her own name, nor inherit property.

We believe that personal independence and equal human rights can never be forfeited, except for crime; that marriage should be an equal and permanent partnership, and so recognized by law; that until it is so recognized, married partners should provide against the radical injustice of present laws, by every means in their power.

We believe that where domestic difficulties arise, no appeal should be made to legal tribunals under existing laws, but that all difficulties should be submitted to the equitable adjustment of arbitrators mutually chosen.

Thus reverencing law, we enter our protest against rules and customs which are unworthy of the name, since they violate justice, the essence of law.

 In reciting her vows, Lucy omitted the promise to “obey” her husband, but agreed to “love and honor” him.

The “Protest” was soon reprinted in William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, as well as in pamphlet form. The wedding itself was widely publicized, not the least by those editors who thought it amusing that Lucy should have behaved so conventionally as to marry.

Library of Congress

But Lucy was not done with taking a stand. She had decided to keep her maiden name. Although she seems to have vacillated somewhat about the matter, she signed letters to Susan B. Anthony after her marriage as “Lucy Stone,” and by the fall of 1856 she was upset when she was mistakenly listed in a convention advertisement as “Lucy Blackwell.” While this decision generated little press, it was a highly unusual step for a married woman in the United States in the nineteenth century; even today, most married women in the country assume their husband’s name. Lucy would be known as “Lucy Stone” for the rest of her life, and history remembers her still by that name.

In August 1855, Lucy confided to Susan B. Anthony that she had not accepted an invitation to lecture because she did not want to lose the “opportunity of securing the blessings of motherhood.” On September 14, 1857, she gave birth to Alice Stone Blackwell.

Lucy and Alice (Library of Congress)

Lucy Stone died at her home in Boston on October 18, 1893, survived by Henry and Alice, both of whom would continue Lucy’s campaign for women’s rights into the twentieth century. Her last words were “Make the world better.”

Sources:

Alice Stone Blackwell, Lucy Stone: Pioneer of Woman’s Rights

Andrea Moore Kerr, Lucy Stone: Speaking Out for Equality

The Liberator, May 4, 1855

Sally G. McMillin, Lucy Stone: An Unapologetic Life

Joelle Million, Woman’s Voice, Woman’s Place: Lucy Stone and the Birth of the Woman’s Rights Movement

Leslie Wheeler, ed., Loving Warriors: Selected Letters of Lucy Stone and Henry B. Blackwell, 1853-1893

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