Antoinette Louise Brown was born in Henrietta, New York, on May 20, 1825, in a log home close to the present fieldstone farmhouse at 1099 Pinnacle Road. This fieldstone house was completed in 1831 and became the family residence. It has been named to the National Register of Historic Places and is still occupied to this day.
Antoinette’s interest in religion started at an early age. When she was 8, she said a simple, sweet prayer when her family was gathered for their evening prayers. Her brother later asked her why she had prayed. She answered, “I think I am a Christian, and why should I not pray?” Her parents were members of the Congregational Church in Henrietta (now the United Church of Christ). When Antoinette was nine years old, the pastor extended an altar call and invited anyone to come forward who desired to join the church. Young “Nettie,” as she was called, went up the aisle alone. The pastor was caught off guard, but he asked her questions about why she wanted to join the church. She answered that she considered herself a Christian and wanted to be connected to the Lord’s people. The pastor declared that he saw no reason why she should not be admitted to membership of the church. A vote was taken, and she became the youngest member of the church. She later said, “I was as deeply and truly religious at that time, though but nine years of age, as I have ever been at any age.” She soon began speaking at church meetings.
Antoinette was also intellectually precocious, and began school at age 3. At age 13 she entered the Monroe Academy on East Henrietta Rd. and Lehigh Station Rd., the first secondary school in the county. She excelled at her studies, graduated at age 15, and immediately began teaching school.
After four years of saving every penny she could, Antoinette set off to Oberlin Collegiate Institute to realize her dream of earning a college degree and pursuing theological studies. Oberlin had been started in 1833, and was the only college in the country that regularly admitted women. It was a several-day trip by mule-drawn barge, steamer and stagecoach. Antoinette was admitted at the third year level. To help pay for her studies, she taught drawing classes in the town of Oberlin and taught at the Rochester Academy in Michigan on long school breaks. While at Oberlin, Antoinette became good friends with Lucy Stone, who was at Oberlin to hone her skills in public speaking on behalf of abolition and women’s rights.
After Antoinette obtained her literary degree in 1847, she lobbied to be admitted as a theological student with an emphasis in Congregationalist ministry. The administration was opposed to a woman engaging in any kind of formal theological learning and training, but Antoinette was persistent. Oberlin finally agreed to allow her to enroll in the courses, with the stipulation that she would not to receive formal recognition. She completed her studies in 1850, but without a license to preach or being registered in the list of graduates. She was already a prolific writer and eloquent speaker, but her family as well as many others tried to dissuade her from her continuing sense of calling to engage in public ministry.
In October of 1850, Lucy Stone invited Antoinette to speak at the first national Women’s Rights Convention. Antoinette quickly became a respected part of the network of women and men in the Northeast who were working for social reform. At this time, women were often prohibited from speaking at temperance conventions. In 1853, Antoinette was selected to be a delegate to the World’s Temperance Convention in New York City. When she got up to speak, she was quickly drowned out by clergymen shouting, stamping, and pounding the floor with their canes. She tried to speak again the next day and then the next, but had to back down in the face of the same raucous indignation. Horace Greeley then wrote a series of angry editorials in his newspaper in which he appealed to the upright, intelligent freemen “to open up public platforms to Brown and other women speakers.” This helped shift the mores to afford women decency and respect, even when they took men’s traditional roles.
Antoinette’s keen reasoning skills and eloquent support of women’s rights, of the abolition of slavery, and of temperence enabled her to make a living as a public speaker. She sometimes traveled with Susan B. Anthony and Amelia Bloomer. She toured through New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and also preached in churches at every opportunity. Horace Greeley, the editor of the progressive New York Tribune, offered her room, board, and a very alluring salary of $1000 a year, if she would agree to speak and preach in New York. But Antoinette declined, holding onto her vision of serving as an ordained pastor.
On one of those tours, Antoinette spoke at a small Congregational church in South Butler, between Rochester and Syracuse. The church was looking for a pastor who would accept the small salary of $300. The congregation was very taken with Antoinette and asked if she would be their pastor. She accepted. On September 15, 1853, she was ordained by deacons and three clergy in a public worship service, becoming the first woman to be ordained into church ministry in a mainstream denomination in the United States. There followed a stream of protests and denunciations from pulpits, the press and the public.
Antoinette was initially enthusiastic about her work, but she began experiencing unsettling opposition to her religious impulses. For example, when she conducted the funeral of an unbaptized baby who had been born to an unwed mother, she was soundly chastised for not preaching that the baby was destined for hell. Such conflicts, the heavy demands of ministry, and the difficulties of supporting any traveling on such a small salary all contributed to her resignation after a year in parish ministry. She was hired by Horace Greeley to write for his newspaper and resumed her public lecturing.
In 1856 Antoinette married Samuel Blackwell. Samuel was the brother of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first female physician, and also the brother of ardent abolitionist Henry Blackwell, who had married Lucy Stone. Antoinette wrote, “The sexes in each species of being… are always true equivalents – equals but not identical.” Antoinette and Samuel strove to live this out in their relationship. Together they raised five daughters (two other children died).
In spite of the heavy demands of raising her family, Antoinette remained a prolific writer of treatises and eight books, whose subjects included feminism, the slums of New York, evolution, and cosmology, in addition to works of poetry and fiction. She strongly argued that women’s voices were needed in theological, scientific and societal enterprises. And she asserted that in order to understand women in society, women themselves needed to conduct the study of women, which Blackwell termed the “science of Feminine Humanity.”
In 1873 Blackwell founded the Association for the Advancement of Women in an attempt to address women’s issues that similar organizations ignored. She was elected president of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association in 1891, and helped found the American Purity Association. She also lectured on behalf of the poor of New York City.
In 1878 she returned to organized religion and became a Unitarian. She applied to the American Unitarian Association and was recognized as a minister. She spoke in Unitarian churches and resumed her lecture tours. Oberlin College attempted to redress the injustice they had inflicted on Antoinette and on women when the college recognized her professional status by awarding her an honorary Master of Arts degree in 1879 and an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree in 1908.
In 1893 Brown attended the Parliament of Religions during the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. There she said, “Women are needed in the pulpit as imperatively and for the same reason that they are needed in the world—because they are women. Women have become—or when the ingrained habit of unconscious imitation has been superseded, they will become—indispensable to the religious evolution of the human race.”
In 1902 she helped found the Unitarian Society of Elizabeth, New Jersey, and served as its minister.
Antoinette wrote, “We fully believed, so soon as we saw that woman’s suffrage was right, every one would soon see the same thing, and that in a year or two, at farthest, it would be granted.” She waited much longer than she had imagined. The 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was passed in 1920. At age 95 and nearly blind, Antoinette Brown Blackwell was the last of the original leaders of the women’s rights movement who was still alive to cast a vote. She died the next year in Elizabeth, N.J.
Quoting from the anonymous booklet “The Path to the Pulpit”:
The woman who dared to shake up the Christian church moved on to meet her God, one who was the all merciful and kind One. With her she carried the accomplishments of her life, prestige and fame, but none as important as the model she left behind for the women after her to follow. She continues to be an inspiration to all to this day.
To help keep her inspiration alive, in 1975, the United Church of Christ (which includes the former Congregational denomination), began presenting Antoinette Brown Awards to ordained UCC women who “exemplify the contributions that women can make through ordained ministry, have provided outstanding ministry in a parish or other church related institutions, including women in specialized ministry, and have a sensitivity concerning the challenges and possibilities of women in ministry and advocacy on behalf of all women in the church.”
In 1982, the Antoinette Brown Blackwell Society was formed by a group of Henrietta residents, in order to keep her name and legacy alive. Every year, the Society presents an Outstanding Henrietta Woman Award and two scholarships in Antoinette’s memory.
And Antoinette was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, NY, on October 9, 1993.
The question now is, How does Antoinette’s life and legacy inspire you?
Written by Rev. David Inglis in February, 2016, from these sources: “Henrietta’s Suffragist” article by Shirley Wallace; “The Path to the Pulpit” article, author unknown; Wikipedia: “Antoinette Brown Blackwell (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antoinette_Brown_Blackwell).