A Primeval Uplifter

LUCY STONE: Pioneer of Woman’s Rights, by Alice Stone Blackwell; Boston: Little, Brown & Company; reviewed by H.L. Mencken

IF THIS biography is a shade partial the fact is surely not surprising, for Miss Blackwell is not only Lucy Stone’s daughter but also a firm believer in all of the reforms that she advocated, excluding, I believe, Prohibition. Indeed, it would be natural for any biographer who knew Lucy Stone [pictured] to be her advocate, for despite the touch of acid that always goes with the passion to serve, she must have been a very piquant and charming woman, and so it is no wonder that the handsome Henry B. Blackwell fell violently in love with her, and pursued her all over the nation with amatory epistles in the best Victorian manner, and then married her triumphantly and spent the next thirty-eight years squiring her about, and admiring her vastly, and unearthing new evils for her to put down. Henry was himself a reformer of no mean technique, but his main business in life was acting as herald and manager for his wife. When, in his old age, she left him a widower, “he had,” as his daughter naively puts it, “more leisure than in former years.” In her heyday he must have been busy indeed, for she had a hand in every reform that engaged the country between 1835 and 1890, and of most of them she was a leader, always on the go. She began her melodramatic tours in stage-coaches and canal boats, and if she had lived a few years longer she would have ended them in automobiles and airships.

When she first set up her booth reform was a dismal business. The gentlemen who pursued it all arrayed themselves in the contemporary garb of ministers of the Gospel, with white neckclothes, plug hats and long-tailed coats. Two-thirds of them shaved their upper lips and wore their beards in the manner of Dunkard elders. They avoided alcohol save to counteract snake bites and the night air, and pronounced their anathema upon smoking, though some of them stealthily chewed. As for the ladies of the movement, they wore black bombazine over crinolines, and spoke of themselves, very delicately, as females. Their virtue was of a granitic, almost a basaltic character. Traveling alone, as they sometimes had to do to save the world, they wrapped themselves in ten or fifteen petticoats, and offered silent prayers to God. When one of them, united in holy marriage to one of the chin-bearded brethren, honored him with offspring, the event became a national indecorum; just how it was achieved remains unknown, indeed, to this day. Life in that age was real and earnest, and sensuous indulgence was not its goal. The ideal was a world devoted exclusively to moral indignation.

Upon such scenes the saucy Lucy Stone burst with paralyzing effect. She was a pink-cheeked little country girl with a turned-up nose, and it is impossible to believe, as her daughter heroically hints, that she was not pretty. A daguerreotype of the 40’s gives the lie to that judgment. It shows a young woman who was pretty indeed— not in the florid, Hollywoodian fashion of today, but in the sedater but just as dangerous manner of those times. Beaux began to lurk about the home farm at West Brookfield, Mass., before she was well into her teens, and by the time she set off for Oberlin to wolf the whole corpus of human wisdom she was the belle of the countryside. The Oberlin professors, though all of them were dour reformers, at once discovered another charm: Lucy had a low-pitched and very agreeable voice. So they made an orator of her, and presently she was on the stump, whooping for Abolition and woman’s rights. No greater knock-out, as the vaudevillians used to say, has ever been recorded in the annals of the uplift. Mobs that fell upon the male reformers with horrible yells, pulling off their coattails and uprooting their chinners, received lovely Lucy with loud huzzahs, and listened to her politely to the end. Often she would make a speech against slavery, and then launch straightway into another for temperance, female emancipation, or some other such fantastic novelty of the day. But no matter what she denounced or advocated, the gallery was with her, and when she finished one harangue it was always ready for another.

Miss Blackwell tells her story in a clear and interesting manner, and incidentally throws some new light upon the history of the woman’s suffrage movement in the United States. As everyone knows, it split into two halves in 1869 and for more than a generation thereafter it was represented by two distinct national associations and published two national organs. The schism was due in part to Susan B. Anthony’s weakness for such clownish allies as Victoria C. Woodhull and Citizen George Francis Train, and in part to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s tolerance of the extremer sort of radicals, including even Stephen Pearl Andrews, who believed that marriage ought to be abolished, and that a few superior men in every community should be told off to become the fathers of all its children. Such doctrines greatly outraged Lucy Stone, who, despite her refusal to use her husband’s name and her three years’ experiment with bloomers, remained a high-toned Christian woman at heart, and she was also opposed to the monkey-shines of Train and La Woodhull. So the movement divided, and for years the suffragettes belabored one another almost as fiercely as they belabored the antis. But all the while Jahveh Himself was watching over them, and they triumphed everywhere in the end, and brought in the millennium that we now enjoy. Lucy herself lived to see it, though most of her old allies, by that time, were dead. She reigned in her last years as the mother superior and cherished museum piece of all the suffragettes, and was greatly honored and respected.

It is marvellous to observe the success of all the reforms that she advocated. Slavery has been abolished in the South, and the meanest Afroamerican in Arkansas or South Carolina now basks in the sunlight of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, to say nothing of the Bill of Rights. In his choice between working hard and saying nothing or pressing his views and getting lynched he is as free as the King of England. Even the whites down there are now liberated: a citizen of Jackson, Miss., may choose freely between believing in Genesis and having his house burned down, and the lowest linthead in a Georgia cotton-mill may quit whenever he pleases, and starve at his will. Meanwhile, Prohibition is everywhere in force, North, East, South and West, and all the evils of rum have been obliterated. So also, international peace has come into effect, and the nations no longer suspect one another and prepare for battle. Finally, the human female has been emancipated and her vote has purged our politics of evil; nay, she has promoted herself from voter to stateswoman, and in the person of such idealistic sisters as Ma Ferguson and Ma McCormick she has shown the male some varieties of Service that he never thought of. All these great reforms Lucy Stone advocated in her day, tramping up and down the highways of the land. Other females derided her, but she hoped on. Where is her monument, reaching upward to the stars? For one, I believe that it is too long delayed.

— The American Mercury magazine, December 1930

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One thought on “A Primeval Uplifter

  1. I was raised in Dorchester Massachusetts in Lucy Stone’s mansion on 45 Boutwell Street. My parents bought the place from Morgan Memorial Goodwill. The organization that owned it up to the beginning of the 60’s. They sold it because they had insufficient funds to keep it up or convert it to a museum. My father built three apartments one on each floor. The third floor had only one entrance and he decided to install a rear stairway leading to the second floor rear hall. When he broke through the wall on the second floor he discovered an existing stairway with a door that had been lathed and plastered over. The stairway led to a small room behind the third floor kitchen and to the area he wanted to install a back door in that kitchen. The interesting part is on both walls in that room and on the floor were arm and foot shackles to hold about ten men in sitting positions. This room was adjacent to the barn in the back and well above the living quarters below. Now why would Lucy Stone have to shackle some of those she was freeing? In the basement was the remains of a tunnel that led under Boutwell Street to the docks that at that time were at the bottom of the hill. Seems she had more than Liberty for slaves on her mind.

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