Blake, Lillie Devereux
BLAKE, Lillie Devereux
Also wrote under: Lillie Devereux Umsted
Daughter of George and Sarah Johnson Devereux; married Frank Umsted, 1855; Grenfill Blake, 1866
For the first 25 years of Lillie Devereaux Blake's writing career (1857-1882) she concentrated on fiction, publishing several novels and novellas and hundreds of short stories. After 1882, most of her published work took the form of essays and lectures on women's rights.
Blake was born into a distinguished Southern family. When her father died in 1837, her mother moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where Blake attended a girls' school and received private tutoring in the Yale undergraduate course. Mother and daughter were very close and remained so throughout their lives.
When Blake debuted at age 17, she became renowned for her beauty and led a strenuous social life. In her writings she often refers to this period of her life, noting that she was taught to regard social success as the only worthwhile goal for a woman. "I was always a belle, flattered and fêted. I only wonder that I was not entirely ruined by an ordeal that would be pretty certain to turn the head of a fairly well-balanced man." She portrays in her fiction many young women enfeebled by flattery, enforced idleness, and what she calls "false education."
In 1869 Blake became involved in the women's rights movement, to which she devoted the rest of her life and most of her subsequent writings. From 1879 to 1890 she was president of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association and from 1886 to 1900 president of the New York City Woman Suffrage League. She was an excellent speaker, and her writings on women's rights are remarkable for their wit and humor; they are often in the form of satire or parable.
Blake ran for president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1900, but was forced to withdraw in favor of Susan B. Anthony's choice, Carrie Chapman Catt. Blake's philosophy and approach differed from Anthony's in several respects. She was often true to her aristocratic background, expressing concern that suffrage workers be well-dressed, well-behaved "ladies," and she inaugurated such events as the Pilgrim Mothers' Dinners, held annually at the Waldorf-Astoria. More importantly, she believed suffrage was only one means of improving women's status. As chair of NAWSA's Committee on Legislative Advice, she advocated campaigning to secure legislation favorable to women and agitating for the appointment of women to new positions (e.g., school trustees, factory inspectors, physicians in mental hospitals, and police matrons). She was instrumental in achieving many of these gains in New York State.
When Blake's legislative committee was dissolved by NAWSA, she founded and became president of the National Legislative League. This organization carried on the legislative approach from 1900 until 1905, when illness prevented Blake from continuing her work.
Although she avoids the worst excesses of the sentimental fiction of the times, Blake writes much to the general pattern. Spirited young women develop fatal fascinations for evil Lovelace types in her stories and may or may not be saved by their honorable suitors; young lovers are separated, reunited, and then part forever when they discover they are siblings. In Blake's early writings, characters who espouse feminist sentiments are punished. For instance, in Southwold (1859), the protagonist, when rejected by a man she loves, becomes embittered and "bold and even unfeminine" in her opinions. She shocks other characters by not taking every word of the Bible literally and by claiming Christianity has harmed women's status. The book ends with her suicide. Interestingly enough, Blake later was to espouse the opinions her protagonist had expressed. "Dogmatic theology, founded on masculine interpretation of the Bible," was the subject of attack in her Woman's Place To-Day (1883), a series of lectures delivered in response to a misogynist theologian. Blake was also one of the contributors to Elizabeth Cady Stanton's controversial Woman's Bible (1895).
Blake's last novel, Fettered for Life; or, Lord and Master (1874), is a feminist work in which wife abuse, unjust marriage laws, discrimination in employment, and lack of educational opportunities for women are illustrated and discussed by the characters. Female friendships are strong in the novel, and the "hero," a successful reporter who frequently rescues the female characters, turns out to be a woman in disguise. When she adopted male attire, she found that "my limbs were free; I could move untrammelled, and my actions were free; I could go about unquestioned. No man insulted me, and when I asked for work, I was not offered outrage."
Rockford; or, Sunshine and Storm (1863). Forced Vows; or, A Revengeful Woman's Fate (1870). A Daring Experiment and Other Stories (1892).
Blake, K. D., and M. L. Wallace, Champion of Women: The Life of Lillie Devereaux Blake (1943). Stanton, E. C. et al., History of Woman Suffrage (1881).
—BARBARA A. WHITE