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Blackwell, Antoinette Brown

BLACKWELL, Antoinette Brown

Born 20 May 1825, Henrietta, New York; died 5 November 1921, Elizabeth, New Jersey

Daughter of Joseph and Abby Morse Brown; married SamuelBlackwell, 1856

Antoinette Brown Blackwell, the seventh of 10 children, grew up in a small town in New York. Valuing education, her parents sent her to the Monroe County Academy, where, with the exception of Greek, she quickly mastered the same subjects as the male students preparing for Dartmouth.

The Brown family was deeply religious—Blackwell's father was a Congregational deacon. At age nine, Blackwell publicly confessed her own religious faith and joined the Congregational church. In 1830 she attended Oberlin, the country's only coed college. Despite parental objections, Blackwell persisted in following her brother into graduate study in theology. Her name was not listed among the students in the department, and she was denied a job teaching younger students to support herself. Although Blackwell completed her studies in 1850, she was not awarded a degree, and the faculty refused to arrange for her ordination (belatedly she was granted the A.M. in 1878 and in honorary D.D. in 1908).

Blackwell became a lecturer on abolition, temperance, and women's rights. At Oberlin she had written an exegesis of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 ("Let your women keep silence in the churches…") and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 ("I suffer not a woman to teach…"), which the school's president had published in the scholarly Oberlin Quarterly Review—followed by a counterargument by the school's Bible professor. E. C. Stanton's History of Woman Suffrage notes that at every early women's rights convention "Antoinette Brown was called on as usual to meet the Bible argument." Brown "made a logical argument on woman's position in the Bible, claiming her complete equality with man, the simultaneous creation of the sexes, and their moral responsibilities as individual and imperative."

In 1853 Blackwell realized her dream of becoming the first woman ordained by a recognized denomination in this country. She became minister of First Congregational Church in Butler and Savannah, New York. Less than a year later, however, she was relieved of her duties "at her own request." The difficulties of translating theology into the complexities of day-to-day interpersonal relationships got the better of her: she comforted a dying boy with God's love rather than pressing him into a conversion experience through fear of hell; she refused to preach on infant damnation at the funeral of an illegitimate child.

After Oberlin, Blackwell had tried to work in New York City at the Methodist Five Points Mission, but some there were offended by her outspoken feminism. In 1855 she returned to the city to work in the slums and prisons, because, as she said, "I pity the man or woman who does not choose to be identified with the cause of the oppressed." She verbalized her social protest in Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, and the article series was later collected in Shadows of Our Social System (1856).

For 18 years after her marriage in 1856, Blackwell rarely appeared on a public platform. She continued her writing, however, and completed two novels, A Market Woman (1870) and The Island Neighbors (1871). Unlike most fiction of the period, these are not moralistic in tone, but rather portray universal foibles. Blackwell also began to write a series for Lucy Stone's Woman's Journal on woman's capacities and abilities to work, think, and learn, which were collected into The Sexes Throughout Nature (1875).

In The Sexes Throughout Nature as well as in many other works, Blackwell wrestled to harmonize the new evolutionary hypothesis and its social implications, as expounded by Darwin and Spencer, with her own religious and social views. The Philosophy of Individuality (1893) represents her final attempt to write a cosmology reconciling mind and matter, revealing the "possible emergence of the Relative from the Absolute by the intervention of Beneficent and Rational Causation."

After her husband's death in 1901, Blackwell helped to found All Souls' Unitarian Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where she served as pastor emeritus from 1908 until her death. She continued faithfully to attend suffrage meetings, and on 2 November 1920, she became the only one of the original generation of women's rights leaders to cast a vote under the 19th amendment.

Other Works:

Studies in General Science (1869). The Physical Basis of Immortality (1876). Sex Injustice (1900). Sea Drift (1902). The Making of the Universe (1914). The Social Side of Mind and Action (1915).

The papers of Antoinette Brown Blackwell are at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, and at the Library of Congress.

Bibliography:

Ashby, R. and D. G. Ohrn, Herstory: Women Who Changed the World (1995). Banwell, N., "Antoinette Brown Blackwell: An Individual Search for Religious Truth" (thesis, 1984). Cazden, E., Antoinette Brown Blackwell, A Biography (1983). Hays, E. R., Those Extraordinary Blackwells (1967). Kerr, L., Lady in the Pulpit (1951). Matthews, L. F., "Women in Ministry, 1853-1984" (thesis, 1985). Mermes, M. B., "Three Women of the Nineteenth Century: Studies in Transcendence—Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, Reverend Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Lucy Stone" (thesis, 1976). Siles, W. H., ed., Studies in Local History: Tall Tales, Folklore and Legend of Upstate New York (1986). Stanton, E. C. et al., History of Woman Suffrage (1881). Stone, L., Soul Mates: The Oberlin Correspondence of Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown, 1846-1850 (1983). Stone, L., Friends and Sisters: Letters Between Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, 1846-93 (1987).

Reference Works:

NAW, 1607-1950 (1971). A Woman of the Century, F. E. Willard and M. A. Livermore (1893).

—NANCY HARDESTY

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