Living historian revives leading suffragist Lucy Stone

On a summer afternoon crowds filled an old stone theater, now a church, just off the Boston Common. They were waiting to hear a farmer’s daughter from a small hill town and a man born into slavery on the Maryland coast—two of the most charismatic and well-recognized public figures in the nation, and leaders in movements that had reshaped it.

In 1888, Lucy Stone and Frederick Douglass shared the stage at the New England Woman Suffrage Association’s 20th annual convention. They had been allies, despite tension, for decades. He looked at Stone that day and saw a woman who had spoken for his cause and put herself at risk.

“We have the same sources of opposition to contend with,” he said. “… I am a radical woman suffrage man. I was such a man nearly 50 years ago….Time, thought and experience have only increased the strength of my conviction. I believe equally in its justice, in its wisdom, and in its necessity.”

Stone worked with him as one of the most powerful voices for women’s suffrage, the equal of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

“She was one of the most famous women in the country without a doubt,” said living historian and historical interpreter Judith Kalaora, recalling Stone as a suffragist and abolitionist known across the country in her own time, but virtually unknown today. Although she campaigned for most of her life for US women’s suffrage, Stone died in 1893, nearly three decades short of being able to cast her own ballot in any national election.

The Nineteenth Amendment, which gave many United States women, primarily white women, the right to vote, came as the crowning achievement of a century of work for suffragists like her. This year, 2020, marks the centennial of its ratification, and despite the impacts of Covid-19 there are many efforts to celebrate the activists who fought for it.

Kalaora, founder of History At Play, will perform as Stone in a virtual event Wednesday evening, July 15, co-hosted by the Berkshire Historical Society and the Bidwell House Museum: “I Now Pronounce You Lucy Stone,” an audience interactive play followed by a Q&A.

As a living historian and historical interpreter, Kalaora has devoted her career to creating interactive programming on women who have had a broad impact on history — and now are often forgotten —  like actor and inventor Hedy Lamarr, and Christa McAuliffe, the teacher aboard the Challenger shuttle. For her living history “is the most expeditious way to teach an audience about a point of view that is entirely different from their own because you are engrossed in the story.”

She first learned of Stone at the Boston Women’s Memorial, a few blocks from the church where Stone and Douglass spoke together.

“There are three statues,” she said “…One is Abigail Adams, and one is Phillis Wheatley, and one is Lucy Stone. And I knew who Abigail Adams was … I knew who Phillis Wheatley was…and then I didn’t know who Lucy Stone was.”

That was how she discovered the blunt, indomitable spirit who asserted in a speech in 1872, “the rights of men and women are the same. They are the same, because men and women are human beings, having a common origin and a common destiny. Every right which inheres in one human being must inhere in all, the human right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”

Kalaora chooses the women she portrays carefully.

“I really have to be fascinated by her within the first 30 seconds to one minute of reading about her,” she said, “and the reason why is that I generally spend a year or two researching her life and creating this program.”

Stone was raised on a farm in the small town of West Brookfield. She saw her mother suffer at the hands of her tyrannical and controlling father, who disparaged Stone’s desire to attend college. Despite her father’s opposition to her educational aspirations, Stone came to the original Mount Holyoke and then to Oberlin — and became the first Massachusetts woman to earn a bachelor’s degree.

At Oberlin she discovered the growing national abolitionist movement, according to historian John Dickson, who co-curated an exhibit on Suffrage with the Berkshire Historical Society that appeared at the Berkshire Athenaeum in February through Pittsfield’s annual 10×10 Festival.

There she met William Lloyd Garrison, renowned abolitionist, and through him became involved in the movement. After her graduation, Garrison hired her as a speechwriter for the American Anti-Slavery Society. From writing speeches, she moved into a still rarer role for a woman—giving them. As a public speaker, Stone traveled across the country, North and South.

After one lecture tour in Missouri in 1854, she recalled vividly the day a young enslaved woman asked for her help to leave the state and win her freedom.

“She said, ‘I am a slave here,’ and she told me her slave history,” said Stone in a talk later that year. “I dare not tell it to you. She told me of wrong and outrage which ought to make every woman, by her own love of freedom, bring her best energies and devote them to the abolition cause.

“She told me that there in Missouri she had been born and brought up a slave. … That girl of sixteen summers had a little girl of a year and a half. She was a girl herself, a child mother, and she could look over that child to her daughter, and that daughter’s daughter further on, and know … that they might be held in eternal bondage.”

Stone went on to work alongside abolitionists and suffragists for more than 30 years, including national figures, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Julia Ward Howe, Wendall Phillips, and Henry Browne Blackwell.

In 1855, Blackwell and Stone married, and turned their wedding into a forum for a political message. Stone knew well that when she married, she would legally lose any independence and control over her work, her financial resources, her house and her own body.

They deliberately removed the word “obey” from their vows, and wrote and published a public protest against the marriage laws that “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.”

“When she got married, she demanded that she be called Lucy Stone, and newspapers and publications only rarely heeded her request,” said Kalaora. This action had lasting consequences—she was barred from voting in a Massachusetts local election even after the state had legalized women’s suffrage in state elections because she did not hold her husband’s name.

The term “Lucy Stoner” still refers to a woman who chooses not to change her name when she marries, a lasting reminder of Stone’s choice, and the Lucy Stone League formed and fought for that legal right through the 20th century.

Stone and Blackwell continued their joint activism, working as part of the American Equal Rights Association with Stanton, Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and others. In 1869, though, the suffrage party split in a national schism.

Stone parted ways with Anthony and Stanton after a fierce disagreement over the Fourteenth Amendment, which expanded the definition of US citizenship to all people born in the country, including newly free Black men and women, and the Fifteenth amendment, which declared that the right to vote would not be denied based on race.

“The Fourteenth Amendment was the first time in the constitution they talked about the rights of men only, and particularly related to voting,” said Dickson. “Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wouldn’t support the passage of those amendments, and Lucy Stone did.”

After the divide, Following the split, Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and others founded the American Woman Suffrage Association and focused their attention on state-to-state campaigns in their efforts to sway opinions in favor of female suffrage. Stone and Henry Blackwell went on to co-edit a popular weekly Boston newspaper, The Woman’s Journal. It later became the official publication of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and persisted in various forms until 1931 as a leading publication of the woman suffrage movement.

Anthony and Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association, which fought for women’s suffrage in opposition to the abolitionist movement and the Republican Party, which in the 1870s and 1880s was the party of Abraham Lincoln, the Union and Civil Rights, much closer to the Democratic party’s ideals today. Anthony and Stanton even negotiated for alliances with  powers in the South.

By the dawn of the 20th century, Anthony and Stanton were openly courting avowed white supremacists like Belle Kearney,” according to Ta-Nehisi Coates in a recent essay in The Atlantic, recognizing the physical and emotional hostility that suffragists faced for decades.

The suffrage movement’s Great Schism, may have contributed to Lucy Stone’s relative anonymity today, Kalaora suggested. When Anthony, Stanton, and others sat down to record their fight for equality, “Lucy Stone was adamant that they continue working and spend all of their resources and all of their time working to ensure suffrage for women.”

When Stanton asked Stone for her bio so that she could be included in their history, Stone did not send one: “She didn’t think their work was done, and she didn’t want to be remembered for a job that had not yet been accomplished,” Kalaora said. “She didn’t want to leave a legacy—she wanted to get the work done.”

The Suffrage exhibit is online at History all around, and you can find tickets for “I Now Pronounce You Lucy Stone” from the Bidwell House.

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