Henry Blackwell (1825–1909) worked with his wife, Lucy Stone, to pave the way for women’s suffrage. Blackwell advocated for equal rights at the local, state, and national levels throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. He worked to create nationwide change, but his contributions to Colorado’s suffrage movement were particularly noteworthy. Although the 1877 suffrage referendum in Colorado failed to pass, Blackwell helped the movement learn from its mistakes and provided advocates with strategies that ultimately succeeded in passing the women’s suffrage referendum in 1893.
Henry Browne Blackwell was born on May 4, 1825, in Bristol, England. He was one of nine siblings. His father, Samuel, owned a sugar refinery but was increasingly disturbed by the prevalence of slave labor in sugar production. A strict Calvinist, Samuel introduced Henry and his siblings to egalitarian ideas about gender and race at a young age. Samuel believed that his daughters should receive the same educational opportunities as his sons—a sentiment that made a significant impression on young Henry. The Blackwell family moved to the United States in 1832. Settling in New York—accounts differ about whether in New York City or on Long Island—Samuel became involved in abolitionism and women’s suffrage. Henry witnessed the growth of these social reform movements through his father’s activism.
The Blackwell family moved to Cincinnati in 1838. As a teenager, Henry Blackwell worked as a clerk before returning to New York City to work as a bookkeeper. While moving back and forth between the East Coast and Cincinnati, Blackwell discovered that his family had become involved with the temperance movement. With family connections to notable temperance leaders such as Reverend Lyman Beecher, Blackwell launched his career as an activist in his mid-twenties. He gave his first speech about gender equality in 1853 at a suffragist convention in Cleveland.
Blackwell’s upbringing and family connections influenced not only the development of his career but also his love life. After a short stint as a bookkeeper in New York City, Blackwell moved to Cincinnati, where he became a partner in a local hardware company called Coombs, Ryland & Blackwell. In Cincinnati he met fellow activist Lucy Stone in 1850. Blackwell continued to follow Stone’s work, eventually inviting her to be a speaker for a suffragist tour in 1853. According to Stone biographer Joelle Million, “when he actually heard her speak in New York he was smitten.” Already fascinated with Stone’s work, Blackwell fell in love with her during the 1853 tour.
At first Stone was not interested in a romantic relationship with Blackwell, but the two built a friendship throughout 1853 and 1854. Blackwell proposed to her numerous times, but Stone remained torn between her romantic feelings toward him and her opposition to the institution of marriage. However, Stone finally agreed to marry Blackwell in late 1854 on the conditions that they would be equal in the relationship and she could keep her maiden name. The couple married in May 1855 in West Brookfield, Massachusetts. They bought a house in Orange, New Jersey, where Blackwell worked as a publisher. In 1857 Stone gave birth to their daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell.
Blackwell and Stone worked together for decades to advance women’s suffrage using a variety of strategies. In 1867 they traveled to Kansas to give speeches on suffrage in advance of the state’s upcoming suffrage referendum (it failed). Blackwell and Stone went on to advocate for similar referenda in other states, but they also found other ways of working for suffrage.
Over the next few years, the couple helped create various publications and organizations. In 1869 they founded the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). In contrast to the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which advocated for a wide array of reforms, the AWSA sought primarily to extend voting rights to eligible women and African American men. As a result of its more moderate aims, the AWSA quickly surpassed the NWSA in popularity.
A year after establishing the AWSA, Blackwell and Stone founded Woman’s Journal. The journal promoted suffrage and informed readers about new developments related to the cause. Blackwell and Stone intended for the journal to advance suffrage while also appealing to less radical readers by including poetry, short stories, and other nonpolitical sections. Woman’s Journal eventually outpaced rival publications, becoming the most popular suffrage journal in the United States. The publication also helped launch the career of their daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell. In 1881, at the age of twenty-four, she became the journal’s editor.
Between grassroots advocacy and the establishment of an organization and a publication, Blackwell and Stone took a multifaceted approach to women’s suffrage.
In the new states and territories of the American West, Blackwell and Stone saw opportunities to spread the suffrage movement. In 1877 they went to Colorado, which was holding a suffrage referendum that fall, to advocate for voting reform. Susan B. Anthony worked in the southern parts of the new state, while Stone and Blackwell worked in the north.
Blackwell’s activism in Colorado failed in the short term, as Coloradans voted overwhelmingly against suffrage in 1877. But what he learned from it would influence the next four decades of suffrage activism. Women’s suffrage, Blackwell argued, could “never be carried out by a popular vote, without a political party behind it.” Blackwell’s observation proved correct; it was only with the support of Republican and Populist politicians that advocates managed to pass a suffrage referendum in Colorado in 1893.
Blackwell remained an outspoken activist to the end of his life. He embarked on numerous political campaigns in Nebraska, Rhode Island, and South Dakota in the 1880s. However, his wife fell ill and died of stomach cancer in 1893, at the age of seventy-five. Nevertheless, Henry and his daughter, Alice, continued to publish Woman’s Journal while remaining involved in other local and national suffrage efforts. Blackwell died in 1909, eleven years before the Nineteenth Amendment made women’s suffrage the law of the land.
Henry Blackwell left behind an enduring legacy in Colorado and the nation. His experience in Colorado in 1877 influenced those subsequent suffragists who worked to gain the support of major political parties. Blackwell also understood that suffragists had to coordinate across state lines to attain their goal. Many of his endeavors, such as Woman’s Journal and the AWSA, helped to organize a nationwide struggle to achieve women’s suffrage.