August 12 in Feminist History

62065-004-75926a99On this day in 1833, Lillie Devereux Blake,a suffragist and a speaker on behalf of women’s rights, was born in Raleigh, North Carolina. Though her birth name was Elizabeth Johnson Devereux, her father called her “Lillie” from a young age and the nickname stuck. Her father owned a plantation in North Carolina, but the family moved to Connecticut after his death in 1837. She grew up there and studied at Miss Apthorp’s school for girls before later receiving education from Yale tutors.

Lillie was an outspoken child who once wrote at the age of sixteen that she planned to “redress the wrongs done to her sex by trifling with men’s hearts.” As a teenager was pursued by a Yale undergraduate whose advanced she rejected. He retaliated by spreading rumors of a sexual relationship and was expelled from the school for impugning her character. Lillie denied that anything inappropriate had ever occurred between them and later expressed regret at his expulsion. Certainly the rumors did not seem to stick, as she was courted by several men and received multiple marriage offers.

Lillie’s marriage to Philadelphia lawyer Frank G. Q. Umsted in 1855 ended only four years later when he committed suicide. She began to write to support herself and their two daughters, Elizabeth and Katherine. Her first story, A Lonely House, found publication in Atlantic Monthly. She also wrote two successful novels, Southwold (1859) and Rockford (1862), and also wrote newspaper and magazine articles. The stories she submitted to magazines generally featured strong female protagonists fighting within more standard romantic plots of the time. She was best known as a correspondent during the Civil War, when she worked for the New York Evening Post, New York World, Forney’s War Press, and the Philadelphia Press and met with President Abraham Lincoln, General Grant, and Andrew Johnson. Her most well known novel was Fettered for Life, or, Lord and Master: A Story of To-Day, which drew attention to the issue facing women of the day.

In 1866 she married for a second time to Grinfill Blake, a merchant who had testified in support of women’s suffrage. She signed the 1876 Centennial Women’s Rights Declaration and was president of the New York State Woman’s Suffrage Association and the New York City Woman’s Suffrage League. In time she broke with the large bulk of suffragists because her broader beliefs were contrary to theirs. Lillie believed that gender roles were a learned behavior and that women and men had a common nature and should have all the same rights. Susan B. Anthony and her followers believed instead in the separate sphere of women and their different nature. Lillie worked on her own to create the National Legislative League and to improve immigration laws for women. She was also known for lecturing across the United States on female enfranchisement.

Her speeches gained notice when she attacked Morgan Dix, a clergyman who claimed the Bible supported the idea of women as inferior. Lillie’s lectures argued that if Eve was inferior to Adam because her creation came after his, then by the same logic Adam was inferior to the fishes.

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