Making the World Better: Lucy Stone

By Erin Witt – Loyola University Chicago, Masters in Public History Program, Fall 2019.

 “From the first years to which my memory stretches, I have been a disappointed woman” [1]. This was how Lucy Stone began an 1848 speech and how she also began her political life. Early on, Stone saw the differences in the way the world treated men and women. One anecdote that captures her dissatisfaction with the system involves a young Lucy Stone reading a passage in the Bible describing a woman’s obedient role in both life and marriage. She was so distraught that she ran to her mother and demanded to know what she could take to kill herself. After being partially consoled, she vowed to learn Hebrew and Greek so she could determine the accuracy of the translations done by men [2]. This early recognition of inequality inspired her career as both a suffragist and an abolitionist. Although sometimes faced with hostility, both because of her gender and the causes she championed, Stone continued her fight for equality [3].    

Lucy Stone during her final year at Oberlin College, 1847. Oberlin College Archives.

            Lucy Stone didn’t simply go along with other suffragist leaders. She staunchly stood by her beliefs, even if it meant potentially disagreeing with those close to her. At the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) Conference in May 1869, certain members of the suffrage movement, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, were disappointed that the 15th Amendment didn’t grant suffrage rights to all people, but just to African American men. Stanton and Anthony believed that only legislation including  both African Americans and women should be considered an advancement to the cause – leaving out women made it difficult for them to support the amendment. They decided to oppose it and formed the National Woman’s Suffrage Association (NWSA). Lucy Stone, an ardent abolitionist since her youth, disagreed with Stanton and Anthony and believed that the enfranchisement of African Americans should come first. Stone, along with husband Henry Blackwell and another famous suffragist, Julia Ward Howe, founded the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). This group admitted both men and women, and supported the 15th Amendment. It wasn’t until 1890 that the two groups finally merged and named themselves the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) [4].      

Throughout her career, Lucy Stone repeatedly found herself in Illinois, often as an invited speaker at a conference or event. One of these instances was in 1889, when Stone was invited to deliver remarks at the Equal Suffrage Convention in Joliet, Illinois. On the afternoon of November 7th, 1889, she spoke on the last day of the convention. She took the time to discuss the societal shift in the opinion of women’s intellectual abilities and their opportunities for education [5]. She also talked about women’s role in the abolitionist movement, saying that “when the slavery question was agitated and women showed a desire to take part in it many men believed that it would be better for the negroes to remain in slavery than for women to fly in the face of providence by speaking in public” [6].

Her declining health in the late 1890’s made it difficult for Stone to travel and continue her public speaking. The final stop in her public speaking career was at the 1893 Woman’s Congress hosted at the World’s Columbian Exhibition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair). Not only was she scheduled as a speaker, but Stone was also honored with a bust that was on display at the fair. Initially hesitant to be so honored, she wished that any money raised towards a sculpture be put towards “help[ing] the Cause of Women” rather than honoring her specifically [7].

Stone spoke in the Art Palace, the new home of the Art Institute of Chicago, which was where all the Congresses were held for the fair [8]. Here she delivered a speech titled “The Progress of Fifty Years” which was her final public address. In this speech, Stone reflected on the important improvements in employment and education, the expansion of women’s role in society, and the accomplishments of the women’s movement over the past fifty years [9]. Lucy Stone ended her final public address with these words:

Lucy Stone, National Women’s History Museum. 2017.

“By what toil and fatigue and patience and strife and the beautiful law of growth has all this been wrought? These things have not come of themselves. They could not have occurred except as the great movement for women has brought them out and about. They are part of the eternal order, and they have come to stay. Now all we need is to continue to speak the truth fearlessly, and we shall add to our number those who will turn the scale to the side of equal and full justice in all things [10].”

Progress doesn’t happen immediately, and often it doesn’t even happen in a lifetime. Lucy Stone understood the importance of continuing to have hope and to believe in the change to come. She died in 1893 without having seen the passage of the 19th Amendment. In the words of Lucy Stone herself, “the widening of woman’s sphere is to improve her lot. Let us do it, and if the world scoff, let it scoff—if it sneer, let it sneer.” [11]


[1] “Disappointment Is the Lot of Women” by Lucy Stone. Reprinted in History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 1, edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, (New York: Fowler and Wells, 1922), 165–167.

[2] Elinor Rice Hays. Morning Star: A Biography of Lucy Stone 1818-1893, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World Inc.), 1961,20.

[3] Sally G McMillen. Lucy Stone: An Unapologetic Life. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2015. 

[4] Margaret L Meggs. “Stone, Lucy (1818-1893).” In Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, edited by Anne Commire and Deborah Klezmer, 842-848. Vol. 14. (Detroit, MI: Yorkin Publications), 202.

[5] “Equal Suffragists’ Convention: Last Day of the Joliet Meeting- an Address by Lucy Stone”. Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922); Nov. 8, 1889; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune, 8.

[6] Ibid.

[7] McMillen, 242-243.

[8] McMillen, 242-243.

[9] “The Progress of Fifty Years.” Digital.Library.Upenn.Edu. Accessed October 28 2019.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Disappointment Is the Lot of Women” by Lucy Stone. Reprinted in History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 1, edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage,  (New York: Fowler and Wells, 1922), 165–167.

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