Lucy Stone: An Unapologetic Life, by Sally McMillen ****

lucystonealifeThis well-documented, balanced yet sympathetic biography serves to advocate for the inclusion of Lucy Stone among the statues of great Americans at the Capitol rotunda in Washington DC. Currently there is a suffragist statue that includes Stanton, Cady, and Mott. McMillen makes a strong case that Stone should be there as well.

Thank you to Oxford and Net Galley for the ARC. The book will be available at the end of January.

The history of the American feminist movement is a cause near and dear to this reviewer’s heart. I have studied it, taught it, and lived it. I have marched on that Capitol numerous times in defense of the right of women’s reproductive freedom, despite the fact that most of my life has been on the West Coast of the USA, and that is one long ride. And so, having recently veered out of my historical comfort zone, here I found myself right back in it. And most of the information in this book, while useful, is not new to me.

The reader should know that although there is extraneous material that ought to be edited out, it is all at the beginning of the book. If you are interested in the history of the suffrage movement and/or American feminist history in general, get a copy of this book, and don’t be discouraged by the initial ten percent. It does get better. It probably won’t change the statues in DC., but regardless, what McMillen imparts here is (for the last 90%)thorough, well documented, scholarly, and unflinching when less attractive issues arrive (such as the race-baiting, anti-immigrant speech-making, and the squabbling after the split in the organization occurred).

Stone was a remarkable woman, strong, charismatic, and imbued with many ideas that were well ahead of her time. Unlike most of the women who participated in and lead the women’s movement of the nineteenth century, her own origins were not petit bourgeois, or middle class. She was born into a farm family that struggled financially, and still she attended Oberlin College, the first in the nation to accept women and permit them to attend college with men. Her education was not a gift doled out from parental largesse; she taught school in order to pay her way. (Her father relented when she was a senior and paid for the last year).There were a number of restrictions on women there that seem ridiculous now and that Stone fought against and sometimes won. Her steely determination, keen intelligence, and personal magnetism led her to be the first woman to enter the then-popular public speaking circuit.

In these days before the American Civil War and after the Industrial Revolution, there was of course no media beyond the printed word. Many people were hungry for new information and ideas, but books were very expensive and newspapers, though plentiful, were often incorrect and for many, insufficient. (This paragraph is not in the book; this is me speaking.) So it isn’t really surprising that those who had the time and the means would turn up to hear speakers on important issues of the day.

Many were shocked, McMillen tells us, to hear that a woman, a single, unescorted woman, had taken this path. Stone was considered a radical, but her musical, sweet-sounding voice and her petite countenance, which she deliberately dressed in black silk and lace to take off the edge, took many off guard, and newspaper reviews were often quite favorable. Over the course of time she became famous. She proposed things suggested by no one else, such as the advantage of a woman’s remaining single so that she could keep her own money and property rather than to turn it all over to her husband, as the law required should she wed. Further, she suggested, the law ought to be changed so that such a choice need not be necessary.

Later she met Susan B Anthony, and the two were, for a time, close friends, addressing one another by their first names at a time when only the most intimate of acquaintances did so. And just as their political agreement formed the basis for what appeared to be an unshakeable friendship, so it would later cause a rift, not only personally, but in the movement itself.

For those interested in women’s history, American history, contemporary history, or Stone herself, consider this a must-read. Skim through the extraneous bits at the beginning and once the narrative truly takes wing, it will keep your attention.

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