The Blackwells: A Transatlantic Family of Radicals

When researching the history of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, I found a host of wonderful, inspiring stories. I also learnt an important lesson about famous women in history: due to their lack of legal rights and independence, they seldom acted alone. So if you find a radical woman, she is probably the tip of the iceberg, a starting point to explore the world that produced her and that she grew out of.

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, UK in 1812 and is famous for being the world’s first female doctor. Following the 1832 riots in Bristol, the family sought a new life in the United States, where her father, a sugar refiner, tried to find non-slave sourced sugar, and their home in Long Island became a refuge for persecuted abolitionists. She championed the rights of women, and of slavery, public health, education, and was widely published and gave many public speeches. She was instrumental in organising nursing care during the Civil War. She was described as ‘either mad or bad’ for her determination to become a doctor in the teeth of such intense male opposition. She was praised by Florence Nightingale, Lady Byron, the Herschells, Faraday and many more.

Elizabeth attended Presbyterian church in Bristol where she heard tales of missionaries abroad and at home, and her experience as a teacher in Kentucky hardened her opposition to slavery, so she grew up in a liberal, if not radical community and family. She was one of nine children, many of whom also became politically active.

Her sister and neice followed her into the medical profession, and her brother, Henry Brown Blackwell was an early and prominent advocate of both abolition and female suffrage. He was a successful businessman, which allowed him to dedicate much of his time to campaigning. When he married Lucy Stone it was on the condition he dedicate himself to womens’ rights and they published a joint statement condemning the inequalities of the status of women, and she refused to adopt his name. Her father believed men ruled over women by divine right, which she believed was a mistranslation of the Bible, so taught herself the classics to investigate this.  She became an eloquent and much travelled public speaker on womens rights and abolition. Together they edited the Woman’s Journal until their deaths.

Antoinette Louisa Brown Blackwell was a college friend of Lucy Stone, and became the first woman to become an ordained minister in the United States.  She campaigned for abolition of slavery, phohibition and womens rights. When she tried to speak at a temperance convention in New York she was shouted down, as Horace Greely claimed, ‘First day – crowded a woman off the platform. Second day – gagging her. Third day voted that she shall remain gagged.’ When she married Samuel Blackwell, brother to Elizabeth and Henry, she continued lecturing whilst her husband cared for their 6 children.

This is a very brief sketch of an incredibly important family, of whom only Elizabeth is generally known.  Thought their widespread public speaking, publishing and membership of public bodies, they had an immense influence on civil rights in the United States, Britain and the rest of the world.  Women’s history is not just for feminists; their struggles to be heard in a male world tell us much about the people who opposed them, and the courage and endurance of groups that have been largely forgotten.

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