Biographies & Images

Antoinette Louisa Brown Blackwell

Image of drawing of Antoinette Blackwell
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Born May 20, 1825
Birthplace Henrietta, New York
Died November 5, 1921
Grave Site She was cremated.
Contribution The first woman minister of a recognized denomination in the United States.
Related Web Site Women's Hall of Fame: Antoinette Blackwell

Antoinette Louisa Brown, nicknamed "Nettie," was born on May 20, 1825, in a log cabin in Henrietta, New York. Her parents were Joseph, a farmer, and Abby (Morse) Brown. Antoinette Brown was the seventh of ten children.

Brown spent her childhood in a fieldstone house near the site of the log cabin where she was born. This house still stands at 1099 Pinnacle Road in Henrietta.

Brown’s parents were very religious and, while she was a child, they were inspired by the Rev. Charles G. Finney and many of the revivals sweeping through upstate New York at that time. Brown was influenced by her family’s religious beliefs from her earliest years, and by the time she was nine she had spoken out publicly to proclaim her faith at the Congregational society and had been accepted by the elders there as a member.

Brown was educated first at the local district school and later at the Monroe County Academy. She then taught for a few years before deciding she wanted to continue her education.  Her father helped her to finance continuing studies in the "literary course" at Oberlin College. She graduated from this course in 1847, and then decided that she wanted to pursue a theologicalPhotograph of Antoinette Blackwell degree at the same institution. The faculty at Oberlin (as well as her family) were against this. Brown was adamant and finally, as a compromise, the faculty allowed her to attend lectures and to accept invitations to preach. However, they did not give her a license to preach and she was not allowed to graduate once she had completed the course in 1850. She was later vindicated and in 1878 Oberlin granted her an honorary Master of Arts (A.M.) degree, and in 1908 they awarded her an honorary Doctor of Divinity (D.D.) degree.

While she was a student at Oberlin, Brown became increasingly involved in the women’s rights, temperance, and anti-slavery movements of the nineteenth century. In 1847 she delivered several speeches on temperance in Ohio. The same year she delivered a speech on woman’s rights at the Baptist church in Henrietta.

For a few years after she graduated from college, she pursued a career as a lecturer, giving speeches on aspects of the reform movement throughout New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New England. She also attended and spoke at many early women’s rights conventions, including the convention in Syracuse, New York in 1852.

The year 1853 proved to be a busy one for Brown. She attended women’s rights conventions in New York City and Cleveland and was appointed as a delegate to the World’s Temperance Convention in New York City. There, because she was a woman, she was shouted down by a hostile audience when she attempted to speak, and ultimately expelled. She also gave a Fourth of July speech at South Butler, New York. On September 15, 1853, the First Congregational Church in Butler and Savannah, New York (in Wayne County) ordained her as their pastor, thus making her the first woman minister of a recognized denomination in the United States. Two months later, on November 15, 1853, Brown officiated at the marriage of a daughter of Rhoda deGarmo, an early women’s rights activist from Rochester. She also signed "The Just and Equal Rights of Women," a call and resolutions for the Woman’s Rights State Convention held in Rochester on November 30 and December 1, 1853.

In spite of her groundbreaking ordination, Brown’s affiliation with the church in South Butler was short-lived, apparently the result of theological disagreements. She voluntarily left the position less than a year later, on July 20, 1854. She would eventually join the more liberal Unitarian Church. In 1855, she worked as a volunteer in the slums and prisons of New York City. While involved in this work, she wrote a series of newspaper articles, which she later published as the book Shadows of Our Social System (1856).

On January 24, 1856, at the fieldstone house in Henrietta where she had spent her childhood, Brown married Samuel Charles Blackwell of Cincinnati, Ohio. She had met him when he came to visit in South Butler in 1853, shortly after she had become a minister there. Mr. Blackwell was a businessman and the brother of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman graduate of a medical school in the United States. His brother, Henry, married Lucy Stone, a feminist reformer with whom Mrs. Brown Blackwell had become close friends while in college at Oberlin. Mr. Blackwell shared his wife’s beliefs in reform, including women’s rights.

After they were married, Samuel and Antoinette Brown Blackwell moved to New York City and later to New Jersey. They had seven children, two of whom died in infancy. Of the remaining five daughters, Edith and Ethel became doctors, while Agnes became an artist and an art teacher.Photograph of Antoinette Blackwell

While she was raising her children, Brown Blackwell for the most part gave up public speaking. However, she continued to study privately and, as her children got older, wrote and published many books on science and philosophy, including Studies in General Science (1869), The Sexes Throughout Nature (1875), The Physical Basis of Immortality (1876), and The Philosophy of Individuality (1893). In 1871 she published a novel The Island Neighbors, and in 1902 at book of poetry entitled Sea Drift; or Tribute to the Ocean.

Brown Blackwell also continued to be involved in women’s rights activities. She disagreed with Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s position on liberalizing divorce laws, and in May of 1860, at the Tenth National Women’s Rights Convention at Cooper Institute (in New York City), she spoke out about her position against divorce. She was present at the first women’s rights convention since the Civil War, also in New York City, in May of 1866. She founded the New Jersey Women’s Suffrage Association in 1867, and supported the leadership of her sister-in-law Lucy Stone in meetings of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), founded in 1869. She contributed articles to the Woman’s Journal, and delivered a paper at the first congress of the Association for the Advancement of Women in 1873. She also served as the association’s vice-president.

When her husband suffered financial reverses in the late 1870s, Brown Blackwell once again took public speaking engagements, traveling throughout the country. She attended conventions of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and later those of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) until she was well into her eighties. At these conventions, she was frequently called upon to speak and to officiate at or assist in religious services. She was also elected as a delegate to a hearing of the International Council of Women held in Washington, D.C. in 1888, and was present at annual meetings of the New England Woman Suffrage Association.

Samuel Blackwell died in October 1901 and a year later, Brown Blackwell found herself speaking at the funeral of the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Yet, in spite of her advancing age and the deaths of her husband and close friends and reform allies, she continued to stay active and involved in suffrage activities, where she was acknowledged with increasing admiration and honor. In 1902, the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association (NJWSA) elected her to their board of directors. While traveling on a train west to a NAWSA convention in 1905, she and her suffragist companions were greeted along the way by admirers, asked to give speeches and interviews with reporters, and given ovations and praise. After the NAWSA Convention of 1906, Ms. Blackwell along with Anne Fitzhugh Miller, spoke at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage in Washington, D.C. In 1908, the NJWSA appointed her to write to President Theodore Roosevelt to urge him to support the federal suffrage amendment. At the state convention of 1911, all participants rose when she entered the room. The same year, she was given a place of honor in a Fifth Avenue suffrage parade in New York City. In 1916, the NJWSA added her to the list of their honorary presidents.

Brown Blackwell also retained her leading role in religion throughout her life. In addition to preaching, she was instrumental in establishing the All Souls Unitarian Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey. There, she served as pastor emeritus from 1908 until she died.

Brown Blackwell was one of the very few pioneer suffragists who voted on November 2, 1920. She was ninety-five years old. She died in 1921 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Her remains were cremated.

Bibliography of Suggested Books & Articles
No Ordinary Women: 29 Remarkable Women of Monroe County, Rochester, NY: Office of the Monroe County Historian, 1999. (booklet)
DuBois, Ellen Carol, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848-1869, (DuBois) Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1978.
Hewitt, Nancy A., Women’s Activism and Social Change, Rochester, New York, 1822-1872, (Hewitt) Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1984.
James, Edward T., Janet Wilson James and Paul S. Boyer, eds, Notable American Women, 1607-1950, Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press (Harvard University) 1971, vol. 1, pp. 158-160

Sherr, Lynn and Jurate Kazickas, Susan B. Anthony Slept Here: A Guide to American Women’s Landmarks, (Sherr) New York: Times Books (Random House) c 1976, 1994.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, and Ida Husted Harper, et al. History of Woman Suffrage, (various publishers), 1889 – 1922. v. I, II, III, IV, V, VI

Ward, Geoffrey C., Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, An Illustrated History ... based on a documentary film by Ken Burns and Paul Barnes..., (Ward) New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

 
Bibliography of Suggested Web Sites
(all current at Jan. 21-27, 2000 except if otherwise mentioned)
Antoinette Brown Blackwell, portrait and short sketch, at http://scc01.rutgers.edu/njwomenshistory/Period_3/abblackwell.htm
Encyclopedia Britannica, "Blackwell, Antoinette Louisa Brown," portrait from Library of Congress and biography, at http://members.eb.com/women/articl...kwell_Antoinette_Louisa_Brown.htm (current at 9/23/99)
Johnson, Rev. Tony, Sermon Brief: "Antoinette Brown Blackwell: A Pioneer of Liberal Religion in New Jersey, at http://home.infi.net/~uucec/sb970511.html
Oberlin College, "Antoinette Brown Blackwell (1825-1921)" (bio and portrait) at http://www.cc.oberlin.edu/~EOG/OYTT-images/NettyBlackwell.html
Oberlin College, "Soul Mates--Correspondence between Lucy Stone...and Antoinette Brown Blackwell..." (one letter from each, written in 1849-1850.) at http://www.cc.oberlin.edu/~EOG/LucyStonewalk-a-thonTour/LucyNettyExchange.html

 

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