Women, Men and Suffrage
Nancy Kohlhoff, Valparaiso branch
(Ed Note: This is the eighth in a series of our exclusive publication of the manuscript written by Nancy after much research to fill in the gaps left by history books when dealing with women’s issues and their struggle to gain the vote.)
Henry B. Blackwell spent two years corresponding with Lucy Stone in an effort to win her hand in marriage. He was just between the ages of twenty-eight and thirty.
Some of his letters suggest that he did not quite comprehend a woman’s situation. In one letter, for example, he wrote, "You ask me, if the laws placed a man in the same position, on marrying, as they now do women, would I marry?" He said he certainly would, although he would take several precautions. He said he would first satisfy himself that his intended would not "be likely to lock me up." Secondly, he said, he would be certain to get a promise from the intended not to pursue "any unjust laws giving my partner control of more than half my future earnings." And thirdly, he said he would "place beyond the partner’s control all my present property."
In short, Henry said that if he were a woman entering into marriage, he "should be my own master, in spite of much unjust annoyance."
Between 1853 and 1855, when Henry was writing his letters to Lucy, no lawyer in the country would arrange to protect a woman or her property from her intended before, or after, marriage. Judge Cady, for example, heard the complaints of many abandoned widows whose sons, having inherited the farm directly from their fathers, simply disowned the mothers who had toiled alongside their husbands for a lifetime. Though sympathetic, the Judge admitted there was no legal recourse he could pursue on their behalf. Except in New York after 1860, there was no county in the states which would allow a married woman to record a deed of property. It appeared Henry Blackwell, as a young man, underestimated the power of law and tradition which prevented a woman from "being her own master."
Henry to the rescue
What finally won Lucy over was a situation in September 1854 in which Henry’s actions spoke louder than his words. A message was received that a train was passing through Salem, Ohio, in which an eight-year-old slave girl was traveling with her masters, a family by the name of Robinson. Being voluntarily brought into the free state of Ohio, the girl was judged to be legally free.
A crowd of about 1200 people gathered at the railroad station. After being addressed by Charles Burleigh, reformer and abolitionist, a committee of four was chosen to rescue the young slave. Henry was one of this group.
Upon finding the girl in the passenger car, the committee asked her if she wished to be free. She responded, "Yes." Henry then took her arm and attempted to lift her away from the owners and other passengers who tried to oppose him. "At that moment a young Cincinnatian, of the name of Keyes, collared me and remonstrated with me. I let go of the child, who was instantly caught up by the other members of the committee and passed out, and carried swiftly into the town in the arms of a colored man, while I shook off Keyes."
The slave girl, given the name Abby Kelley Salem, was taken into the "colored" community. Whatever became of her is not certain. Henry, though, paid a price for his actions, his partners dissolved their connections with him, claiming that his behavior had been "injurious to our business." He was accused by the local newspapers of having "scratched Mrs. Robinson on the neck and tumbling her baby to the floor." A lawsuit against him was finally dismissed, but for months "Kentuckians would come into his hardware store and look long and fixedly at him. When he asked, ‘What can I do for you, gentlemen?’ they would answer, ‘Ah, damn you, we shall know you if we ever catch you on the other side of the river!’"
Lucy gives in to marriage
Lucy, of course, rallied behind Henry in a letter she wrote shortly after. "Dear Harry: I am very proud and glad of the part you took in that rescue. Do not defend the deed; it is its own best defense and needs no other." Even though her heart was won by this time, Lucy felt that she "ought to stay single" in order to devote herself wholly to her work for woman’s rights. But he promised to devote himself to the same work, and persuaded her that, together, they could no more for it than she could do alone. According to their daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell, "No promise was more faithfully kept."
After Lucy died, Henry wrote in the Woman’s Journal, "Dear friends of woman suffrage everywhere, let the loving, unselfish life of our departed friend and leader be to us faith, courage and inspiration. In no way can we so cherish her memory as by promoting the cause that was to her more dear and sacred than any other." Henry campaigned in at least twenty states for woman suffrage and attended every national Suffrage Convention until his death in 1909.
After the Civil War, many of the men who had worked hand-in-hand with the women for abolition and woman’s rights abandoned the woman’s cause. The politics of Reconstruction and the enfranchisement of black males took precedence over the woman question. But Henry B. Blackwell, the Rev. Samuel J. May, Stephen S. Foster, Parker Pillsbury, and one black reformer, Robert Purvis, remained steadfast in the face of all opposition to grant women the vote at that time. Their names, however, like those of the great women reformers, do not appear in the standard history books.
(Quotes from Blackwell, Alice Stone, Lucy Stone, Pioneer of Woman’s Rights, Plimpton Press, 1930; general background from various published sources on woman’s history. Copyright 1993)
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