Brown Blackwell, Antoinette (1825–1921)

views updated

Brown Blackwell, Antoinette (1825–1921)

First ordained female minister in the U.S. and well-known public speaker on women's rights, temperance, and abolition, who successfully combined a career with marriage and motherhood. Name variations: Antoinette Brown; Antoinette Brown-Blackwell. Born Antoinette Louisa Brown on May 20, 1825, in Henrietta, New York; died in New Jersey on November 5, 1921; daughter of Joseph Brown (a farmer) and Abigail Morse Brown; sister-in-law of Elizabeth Blackwell, Emily Blackwell, and Lucy Stone; aunt of Alice Stone Blackwell (1857–1950); attended Monroe County Academy, 1838–1840; graduated Oberlin College, B.A., 1847, M.A. in theology, 1850 (not recognized by Oberlin until 1908), M.A. (honorary), 1879, D.D. (honorary), 1908; married Samuel Blackwell on January 24, 1856; children: Florence Blackwell (b. 1856); Mabel Blackwell (b. 1858); Edith Blackwell (b. 1860); Grace Blackwell (b. 1863); Agnes Blackwell (b. 1866); Ethel Blackwell (b. 1869).

After graduating from Oberlin College and completing studies at the master's level, began her public speaking career on the lyceum circuit in the northeastern United States, lecturing on women's rights, temperance, and abolition (1847); ordained as the first female minister in U.S. and installed as pastor of a Congregational Church (1853); became the first woman in the U.S. to officiate at a marriage ceremony (1853); after her marriage and the birth of her first daughter (1856), curtailed, but did not eliminate, her public speaking, continuing to tour with Susan B. Anthony and to preach in New York City; turned increasingly to writing, as more compatible with her maternal responsibilities, and wrote several volumes and articles on women's rights and religion, as well as a novel; participated in the founding of the Association for the Advancement of Women (1873); became a Unitarian and was recognized as a Unitarian minister (1878); founded and preached monthly at a Unitarian Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey (1903); was a featured speaker at the International Council of Women (1888) and the World Parliament of Religions (1893); testified before the Senate on behalf of federal suffrage for women (1906).

Selected writings: (novel) The Island Neighbors (1871); The Sexes Throughout Nature (1875); The Philosophy of Individuality (1893); The Making of the Universe (1914); The Social Side of Mind and Action (1915).

Eight-year-old Antoinette Brown astounded her family one Sunday evening by spontaneously contributing a short and simple prayer to the family's regular religious observance. In an age when most children obeyed the injunction to be

seen and not heard, Brown's older relatives were curious as to why the child had been emboldened to raise her voice in prayer. The young Antoinette answered honestly, "Because I think I am a Christian, and why should I not pray?" Later that year, the Congregational Church attended by the Brown family voted unanimously to accept Antoinette into full membership, despite her age. The deeply felt religious faith expressed by the young Antoinette Brown would sustain her in the ensuing years as she defied even more strongly held social taboos to become the first ordained woman minister in the United States and a well-known public speaker and writer on the controversial subjects of abolition, temperance, and women's rights.

Antoinette Brown, born on May 20, 1825, in Henrietta, New York, was the seventh child of a farming couple, Abigail Morse Brown and Joseph Brown. In 1819, her parents had moved from Connecticut to what was then a frontier region in the vicinity of Rochester. The Brown family was extremely religious and, during Brown's youth, was often caught up in the various religious revival movements that swept across the United States. They belonged to a less strict branch of the Congregational Church, which emphasized God's mercy and forgiveness rather than dwelling on the sinfulness of man.

Brown received her early education in a small local school. In 1838, she went to the coeducational Monroe County Academy where she studied mathematics, composition, rhetoric, and French, graduating in 1840. According to the mores of the time, though Brown was only 16, she was considered equipped to pass on her scant learning to other youngsters. Thus, she began a teaching career in local grammar schools situated near her family's farm. Teaching was virtually the only employment option for young girls like Brown in the 1840s, other than marrying, raising a large family and sharing in the back-breaking labor of running a family farm, as Brown's mother had done. From the beginning, however, Brown was discontented with teaching. She later wrote to a friend, "so far as the school is concerned I have not the least ambition. God never made me for a school teacher."

In what portion of the [Bible] do we find any commandment forbidding woman to act as a [preacher], provided she has a message worth communicating, and will deliver it in a manner worthy of her high vocation? Surely nowhere.

—Antoinette Brown Blackwell

Brown decided instead that God intended her to be a minister. This was a surprising career choice. In virtually all Protestant denominations, except the Quakers, it was unheard of for women to preach, much less to serve as recognized ministers. Realizing that she would need further education to follow her chosen path, she rejected the idea of attending one of the many women's seminaries, "where the great object is to make mere butterflies of females. I wish to go where not only the intellect, but the moral principle will be cultivated, disciplined and trained for active service in the vineyard of the Lord."

Brown concluded that Oberlin College in Ohio could provide her with the requisite moral and intellectual training and left New York in the spring of 1846. The town of Oberlin had been established as a model community and in 1834 a Collegiate Institute, the predecessor of the college, was founded to train ministers, missionaries, and teachers. Brown had some family connections with the college. Her older brother William had graduated from Oberlin Theological Seminary in 1841, and Charles Grandison Finney, the president of Oberlin during Brown's student years, had been a minister in upstate New York and spiritual mentor to her parents.

Oberlin was a very unusual institution. The school required all students to perform some sort of manual labor, for which they were remunerated at very low rates, to build character and instill self-reliance. Politically, the school was known as a hotbed of abolitionism. Officially, the college favored a moderate anti-slavery position known as Christian abolition. Oberlin eschewed the ideology of radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and his followers who argued that opponents of slavery should sever all connections with institutions that included slave holders, including churches. Instead, the college's position was that abolitionists could work through institutions that included slave-owning members in order to mitigate and eventually to eradicate the evil of slavery.

Not the least unusual aspect of Oberlin was its acceptance of students of both genders at a time when women were usually barred from serious higher education. However, while classes were coeducational, female students at Oberlin did not receive the same education as their male colleagues. The college believed its duty lay in training women for their domestic roles, as the wives of ministers and teachers and the mothers of progressive Christian children. Male students, on the other hand, received the rigorous intellectual and practical training necessary for careers in the ministry and education. Thus, women were not schooled in public speaking and rhetoric, two skills essential for any aspiring minister, and, indeed, were not permitted to speak publicly in coeducational classes. Oberlin even offered two courses of study: a demanding classical course, pursued by most of the men, and a less rigorous literary curriculum, in which most female students, including Antoinette Brown, enrolled.

Brown, however, was not to be dissuaded from her plans to prepare herself for a career in the ministry. If Oberlin refused to provide her with the skills and opportunities necessary to develop her preaching talents, then Brown would create those opportunities herself. In this endeavor she was aided by her close friend and fellow student, Lucy Stone . Stone and Brown met shortly after the latter arrived at Oberlin. Stone, the elder by several years, already had a reputation as a radical Garrisonian abolitionist and an ardent advocate of women's rights. She would go on to achieve renown as a public advocate of abolition and a leader of the women's rights movement in the United States. In 1846, Brown, Stone, and a few other women reactivated the moribund Ladies' Literary Society of Oberlin to provide a forum for training themselves in the public speaking and rhetorical skills denied to them by the college.

In the summer of 1847, the two friends finished their undergraduate work at Oberlin. While Stone left to begin public lecturing on the abolition question, Brown decided to return to Oberlin to undertake the formal study of theology. Oberlin, however, was unwilling to recognize Brown as a regular student in the theology division because of institutional opposition to women's public speaking. Thus, the school refused officially to enroll Brown, but rather considered her a "resident graduate" during her three years of theological study. Oberlin also created financial difficulties for Brown by refusing to allow her to teach in the Preparatory Division of the college. She was reduced to working for three cents an hour until she established herself as a drawing instructor independently of the school. Brown began to speak out in class, and was eventually admitted to the Theological Literary Society, the forum for public speaking maintained by Oberlin's graduate theological students. Although Brown thus succeeded in muting the initial hostility of many professors and fellow students, Oberlin would not formally recognize her successful completion of the graduate program for another 58 years.

Lucy Stone had objected vigorously to Brown's acquiescence in her second-class treatment by Oberlin. She called Oberlin's handling of Brown "dishonorable" and scolded her friend for her meek acceptance of the degrading terms: Oberlin "trampled your womanhood and you did not spurn it. I do believe that even they would have thought better of you if you had stayed away." Brown, however, was willing to sacrifice some principles to more pragmatic considerations. She believed that she could benefit greatly from the training and credentials grudgingly provided by Oberlin. Stone also disapproved of Brown's study of theology and her continued adherence to organized religion. Stone perceived religion as not only moribund but also as a major force in the historic oppression of women. In later years, as the burgeoning women's rights movement in the United States came to share many of Stone's negative perceptions of religion, Brown was increasingly at odds with her fellow activists because of her belief in the necessity of institutionalized Christianity and of women's active participation in organized religion.

In 1850, Brown finished her theological studies. The organization empowered to license Oberlin graduates to preach decided that, while they would not prevent Brown from public preaching, they could not officially recognize her preaching by the grant of a license. She returned home to New York dejected and seemingly thwarted in her ministerial ambitions. Brown began to write for the North Star, the abolitionist paper of ex-slave Frederick Douglass. She also attended the National Woman's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, held in 1850. Her speech, refuting St. Paul's injunction against women's speaking in church, was positively received.

Perhaps because of her success at the convention, Brown decided to embark on a tour as a speaker on the lyceum circuit. Her family vigorously opposed this plan, urging her to pursue, instead, the more acceptably feminine professions of teacher or missionary. Brown persevered, however, lecturing throughout the Northeast on several "hot topics" of the day: abolition, temperance, and women's rights. Although women generally received lower compensation than male speakers, Brown demanded and got equal treatment. Her fame grew—in part because of her unique qualification as a female preacher—and the Brown family became more supportive of their increasingly well-known and successful daughter. Public speaking was commonly believed to be incompatible with feminine modesty, yet Brown suffered no such qualms in her lecturing career. "It was never a real trial," she later wrote, "not even a hard or difficult thing to face the public with a thought which I really wished to impress upon their attention. From first to last there never was any real self-sacrifice in my chosen work—it was merely self-expression."

Despite the success of her lecturing career, Brown had not abandoned her dream of becoming a minister with a church of her own. In 1853, she moved to the small town of South Butler, New York, to become minister of its Congregational Church at the lowly salary of $300 per year. The church was apparently quite open to innovation—indeed, one of Brown's predecessors as pastor had been an African-American male. Because the Congregational Church has no institutional hierarchy, individual congregations have wide latitude to act on their own initiative in hiring, and even ordaining, ministers. On September 15, 1853, when the South Butler Congregational Church recognized Antoinette Brown as its minister, she became the first ordained woman minister in the United States. A few months later, she made history again, becoming the first woman to officiate at a marriage ceremony, an event that received widespread press coverage. Brown's notoriety as a woman minister also boosted her public-speaking career; she could now command almost any price for her lectures.

Despite these significant successes, Brown often found the life of a women's rights pioneer to be both lonely and enervating. As early as her Oberlin days, she had discovered that many people strongly disapproved of women as preachers. She had written to Lucy Stone that when people discovered her ministerial ambitions they "sometimes believe I am joking, sometimes stare at me with amazement and sometimes seem to start back with a kind of horror." Brown was very much alone in her struggle to open up the ministry to women. No other woman was ordained for nearly ten years. She also felt keenly the lack of support from many of her friends and family. Brown later wrote, "It was one of my odd experiences to see some of my old intimates of my own age look at me with a kind of curious incredulity, as utterly unable to comprehend the kind of motive which could lead me to take so peculiar a position in life. No attitude of strangers could have affected me half so much." In 1854, suffering from ill health brought on by the physical and emotional demands of her pastoral work, and also burdened by a spiritual crisis, Brown left her church in South Butler and returned to her parents' home to recuperate.

The issue of women's rights became increasingly important to Brown. Her experiences at the 1853 World Temperance Convention in New York City underscored the disabilities under which women still labored in making their voices heard on public issues. Brown attended the convention as a credentialed delegate of two temperance societies, but the men chairing the meeting refused to allow her to speak. Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune and a friend and supporter of Brown, described the proceedings in his paper: "First Day—Crowding a woman off the platform. Second Day—Gagging her. Third Day—Voting that she shall stay gagged."

However, Brown continued to have a problematic relationship with the established women's movement in the United States. Although she supported the movement for women's suffrage, believing that because men and women were fundamentally different men could not represent women politically, her first priority was to improve women's social and economic position. She refused to wear "bloomers," the outfit of tunic, knee-length skirt and pants adopted by many women's rights activists of the period, believing that ridicule of the costume would detract from more important issues. Brown continued to argue that organized religions could provide a meaningful role for women, although many important leaders of the women's movement such as Stone and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had severed all ties with their churches. Nonetheless, Brown eventually succeeded in her long campaign to convince her fellow activists to open and close women's rights conventions with a prayer. Finally, although Brown agreed with other women's rights leaders that women needed greater control over their persons and their property within marriage, she strenuously disagreed that making divorce easier was the solution to women's marital disabilities.

Brown had never considered marriage an option for herself. She feared that the responsibilities of a husband and family would interfere with her work as lecturer and minister. Furthermore, she believed that single women could provide to a skeptical public an example of women's vast, untapped abilities. While at Oberlin, she had written to Lucy Stone, who also disavowed marriage, "Let [people] see that woman can take care of herself and act independently without the encouragement and sympathy of her 'lord and master,' that she can think and talk as a moral agent is privileged to. Oh no, don't let us get married. I have no wish to." In 1854, however, while in New York City preaching, doing social work, and writing about her experiences for the New York Tribune, Brown met Samuel Blackwell. Blackwell's family were longtime staunch abolitionists and his sisters, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell , were pioneers in women's entry into the medical profession. In addition, his brother Henry Browne Blackwell was assiduously courting a reluctant Lucy Stone. In 1855, shortly after Stone and Henry Blackwell were wed, Antoinette Brown accepted Samuel Blackwell's proposal. They were married on January 24, 1856.

Brown did not intend that her position as wife (and soon, as mother) would hinder her career. She wrote, "It is entirely understood between Mr. Blackwell and myself that my public work would be as nearly uninterrupted as circumstances would allow." Although Brown continued to lecture and preach, the birth of six daughters (five of whom survived infancy) forced her to cut back on her public engagements. After the Civil War, with her family responsibilities increasing and the women's movement riven by factionalism and focused almost exclusively on women's suffrage rather than on the social issues of greater concern to her, Brown abandoned public speaking and turned to writing. Though she authored some fictional works, including a novel, her writings mainly addressed the attempt to reconcile science and religion.

Although distancing herself from the two established women's rights organizations, the National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Brown's former colleagues on the lyceum circuit, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the American Woman Suffrage Association, headed by her sister-in-law, Lucy Stone, Brown remained committed to progress for women. She was a founder and active member of the Association for the Advancement of Women, which addressed issues such as women's education, science, and dress reform, that the suffrage organizations disdained. In many of her writings, Brown argued that women could and should combine professional and domestic duties. In her own life, she was quite fortunate, for Samuel Blackwell was willing to share household responsibilities with his wife. Perhaps drawing on these experiences, Brown was one of the first writers to propose that, not only should women move into masculine professions, but that men should undertake traditionally feminine domestic duties as well. However, Brown apparently believed that women's first concern should be home and family and that professional responsibilities must be shaped to accommodate domestic requirements. Her writing also did not dwell on women's engaging in paid employment outside the home; rather, she argued that women must remain intellectually alive and engaged while fulfilling their household duties.

As Brown grew older, she reaped the rewards of her earlier pioneering activities. By 1880, there were over 200 female ministers in the United States. Brown's eldest daughter, Florence Blackwell , became a lay preacher in the Methodist Church. (Two other daughters, Edith and Ethel , became doctors.) Brown had herself become a Unitarian in 1878 and was recognized as a minister by the Unitarian Church. In 1903, she helped found a Unitarian church in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Accorded the title of "Minister Emeritus," Brown preached once a month.

Oberlin College belatedly acknowledged her achievements. In 1879, her alma mater granted her an honorary masters degree and in 1908 she received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree. Her intellectual achievements in the debate on science and religion were also recognized in 1881, when she was elected to membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 1893, when she presented a paper at the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago. Her work as an early activist in the women's movement was acclaimed in 1888 at the International Council of Women at which she, along with other luminaries such as Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were honored at a "Conference of Pioneers." In 1890, her quiet efforts to reconcile the leaders of the two major women's rights groups were rewarded with the merger of the organizations as the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Brown also testified before the Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage in 1906 in favor of a federal suffrage amendment. She was one of the few original women's rights leaders to live to see that amendment ratified in 1920. Antoinette Brown Blackwell triumphantly voted in the presidential election of 1920, casting her ballot for the Republican candidate Warren Harding.

Although left a widow after Samuel Blackwell's death in 1901 and increasingly plagued by deafness and blindness, Brown maintained an active and involved life throughout her later years. She traveled extensively both abroad and in the United States, visiting the Middle East in 1903 and attending a suffrage convention in Portland, Oregon, in 1905. She continued to write and published her first collection of poems, Sea Drift, to generally favorable reviews in 1902. Antoinette Brown Blackwell died in New Jersey on November 5, 1921.


Cazden, Elizabeth. Antoinette Brown Blackwell. Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press, 1983.

Lasser, Carol, and Marlene Deahl Merrill. Friends and Sisters: Letters between Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

suggested reading:

Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle. Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1959.

Kerr, Laura. The Lady in the Pulpit. NY: Woman's Press, 1951.


Blackwell Family Papers at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Mary A. Procida , University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

About this article

Brown Blackwell, Antoinette (1825–1921)

Updated About content Print Article


Brown Blackwell, Antoinette (1825–1921)