Lucy Stone: A Place of Honor on National Women’s Equality Day

One day, when I was seventeen, I approached my father with questions about love,  like Why should a woman marry?  This confused him because he and my mother loved each other, their marriage was good, and their other daughter, my older sister, was already also happily married.

Nevertheless, I said..  Why? And what’s this “obey” business?  

We exchanged ideas. He was patient. “So: you want a Lucy Stoner marriage, is that it?” he said. Thankfully, since I didn’t know what a “Lucy Stoner marriage” was, he went on to tell me about his early brief marriage to a writer named Hagar Wilde that ended on friendly terms. “We had a Lucy Stoner Marriage,” he confided. They had lived in Greenwich Village, he told me, but she had insisted on a separate studio, one outside their home, for her work. (Hagar, by the way, wrote the famous screwball comedy with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, “Bringing Up Baby,” which I later decided was successful because she had a place of her own.) I hadn’t heard about his first marriage, of Hagar, or of a “Lucy Stoner marriage,” whatever that was, until then. He also told me that he and my mother did not have a Lucy Stoner marriage.

 So I asked. What’s this Lucy Stoner Marriage you and mom don’t have?  Is it improper? Illegal?  A girl could hope.

It turned out that he was referring to the marriage of the 19th century  abolitionist and suffragist, Lucy Stone, to fellow activist Henry Blackwell on May 1, 1855. They wrote their vows at a time when women’s rights were not yet remotely on the horizon—sixty-four years before women got the vote. It was also ninety years after something called “The Rights of Persons” appeared in the commentaries of Sir William Blackstone, reiterating the law, which said that “…the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage….” and meant that wives were the property of their husbands: they couldn’t own or control their own property, serve on juries, hold elective office, sign a contract, have custody of their children or control their money, even if it was money they earned.

Lucy Stone’s and Henry Blackwell’s magnificent marriage statement, a staggering insistence on equality despite the law (and she kept her own name) was read aloud at their wedding ceremony by the Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higgins, who, to his credit, was so impressed that he made copies and distributed it to the local clergy should other couples decide to use it.  The ceremony must surely have given the guests the vapors.

My father got hold of these vows soon after our discussion, and gave them to me, whom he thereafter referred to from time to time as his “Lucy Stoner daughter.” Read them, and be reminded of what Lucy and Henry did for all of us.

Lucy Stone’s Marriage Statement

 While acknowledging our mutual affection by publicly assuming the relationship of husband and wife, yet in justice to ourselves and a great principle, we deem it a duty to declare that this act on our part implies no sanction of, nor promise of voluntary obedience to such of the present laws of marriage, as refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being, while they confer upon the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority, investing him with legal powers which no honorable man would exercise, and which no man should possess. We protect especially against the laws which give to the husband:

1. The custody of the wife’s person.

               2.   The exclusive control and guardianship of their children.

               3.    The sole ownership of her personal, and use of her real estate, unless previously settled upon her, or placed in the hands of trustees, as in the case of minors, lunatics, and idiots.

             4.    The absolute right to the product of her industry.

            5.    Also against laws which give to the widower so much larger and more permanent interest in the property of his deceased wife, than they give to the widow in that of the deceased husband.

           6.    Finally, against the whole system by which “the legal existence of the wife is suspended during marriage,” so that in most states, she neither has a legal part in the choice of her residence, nor can she make a will, nor sue or be sued in her own name, nor inherit property.

We believe that personal independence and equal human rights can never be forfeited, except for crime; that marriage should be an equal and permanent partnership, and so recognized by law; that until it is so recognized, married partners should provide against the radical injustice of present laws, by every means in their power.

Of all the vows I’ve heard– and God knows I’ve heard many, delivered on mountaintops and in ski lodges, vows that became singalongs and hugathons, words written by the church, Leonard Cohen, or by couples themselves; words uttered by straight couples and gay couples; young couples and old couples; couples who were high, and couples who were low–these are the most meaningful to me. They speak not just to one man’s and one woman’s defiant, passionate intention to treat each other as equals at a time when the law forbade such a thing, but to their uncanny understanding that enduring love depends on it.  I’m proud to have been a Lucy Stoner daughter. And I’m proud to be a Lucy Stoner wife.

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