Antoinette Louisa Brown was an American minister, women’s rights activist, reformer, public speaker and author. She is known as the first women ever to become a minister of a recognized congregation. She also held a lot of lectures and used her public speaking skills to improve women’s rights significantly. She is also known for creating a religious foundation for sexual equality.
Antoinette Louisa Brown was born into a religious family. Her father, Joseph Brown, was a justice of the peace and a farmer, and her mother, Abigail Morse, was a housewife. Antoinette was the seventh child of a total of ten that Joseph and Abigail had together. The reform movements that were happening at the time affected her parents, so they encouraged her to get educated.
Brown showed her intelligence at an early age and followed her older siblings to school when she was only three. She was a great help around the house but hated sewing and other housework that was supposed to be done by women. She preferred men’s chores and writing. As her family was a part of the Liberal Congregationalist religious movement, her parents completely supported her in choosing to do what she likes, and her father even paid her when she helped around the farm.
Brown’s grandmother taught her about religion and they discussed the Bible often. She believed that God is a friendly presence and she liked to go to the nearby woods, look at the sky and enjoy. Her family was regular at the local Congregational church. One Sunday a preacher called the people of the church to devote their lives to God. Brown immediately went to her Sunday School teacher and told him she wants to become a minister. However, the teacher rejected her as girls could not become ministers at the time.
Luckily, she had a great support from her family, especially her mother, who gave her a small white ribbon to pin inside her collar. The idea was to hold onto it whenever other people were criticizing her or she didn’t understand their reactions. Brown continued to learn diligently and in 1838 she enrolled at the Monroe County Academy.
Upon finishing it in 1840, she became a school teacher. However, she wanted to get a higher education so in 1846 she decided to enter the Oberlin College, Ohio, where she was studying a non-degree literature program. She completed it the following year and asked to move to the Theology Department. Despite the fact that Oberlin encouraged women to get an education, she was accepted only when she tried for the second time.
During her studies, everyone reminded her that according to Bible women can’t speak in church and Theological Literary Society needed to give her approval to present essays. Brown completed her studies in 1850 but didn’t get a degree for decades. The Congregational Church permitted her to preach in 1851, but ordination was withheld.
After she completed her studies, Brown traveled for a few years, giving lectures predominantly on women’s rights but also on various other reform issues. In 1852, she was called by the Congregational Church of South Butler, New York, where a Methodist minister had to ordain her in 1853 because the Congregation clergy refused to ordain a woman. Brown became the first women ever to be ordained.
Brown finally fulfilled her dream and became a minister, promising firmly to herself that she will proudly do her job. She soon officiated her first wedding ceremony, which was also the first ever to be done by a woman minister. She was also chosen as a delegate of her church for the World’s Temperance Convention in 1853.
Being exposed to the theology of liberal Unitarianism, Brown questioned her own beliefs. She couldn’t find the strength to declare two unbaptized infants who just died to be damned. Instead, she resigned after spending only ten months in the South Butler church. She stated poor health as the reason but the real reason is that she doubted Congregational creed.
After a short vacation, Brown started lecturing again. She decided to focus on lecturing about women’s rights but she also lectured on temperance and abolition. In 1855-56, she worked voluntarily at prisons and slums of New York City. Her articles on the disparity between the “enlightened Christianized society of the city” on one side and the “shadow of poverty” on the other side were published in the New York Tribune. She also published collected articles in 1856, naming them “Shadows of Our Social System”.
While Brown was in New York, she met a hardware salesman and a real estate dealer named Samuel Charles Blackwell. He was an abolitionist and struggled with the same problem as Brown and they continued their theological revolution together, marrying in 1856. The marriage didn’t affect Brown to continue her lectures on tours, and Samuel agreed to help to care for their children (they had seven of them, five of which survived infancy).
The Civil War stopped her from keeping lectures until 1865 but she soon continued with speeches on the struggle for women’s equality. However, her children needed here at the time, so she decided to make writing her primary occupation, as it enabled her to be a mother at the same time. Woman’s Journal published her articles and she even published a book in 1869, called Studies in General Science. The book was actually a collection of essays she has written during the previous years.
Husband helped Brown a lot with raising the children and she advocated that other husbands should follow that example, along with the fact that part-time work should be allowed to a married woman. Following the split of the American Equal Rights Association, Brown joined the American Woman Suffrage Association which was led by her friend Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, her brother-in-law. Brown herself founded the Association for the Advancement of Women in 1873.
One of the Brown’s most notable works came in 1875 when she wrote a corrective to The Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin which she called The Sexes Throughout Nature. Her theory was quasi-scientific as she argued that “the sexes might be different but are equal by way of natural evolution”. In 1881, she was one of just several women to be elected as a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In 1878, she and her husband started visiting Unitarian churches across the New York City. Although she avoided declaring herself as a member of any religious sect until then, she asked to be accepted to the American Unitarian Association. She was ordained after several months but nonetheless decided to resume to giving lectures and occasional preaching. She spoke at the Parliament of Religions held in 1893 in Chicago, where she once again repeated that women are indispensable to the evolution of the human race. In 1902, Brown was one of the founders of the Unitarian Society of Elizabeth, New Jersey, whose minister she became.
Brown saw some results from her fight for women’s rights. Oberlin College issued her two honorary degrees, honorary Master’s in 1878, and an honorary Doctoral degree in 1908. She continued being active even during her late years. In 1920 she was 95 and was the only participant of the Women’s Rights Convention that stayed alive long enough to see women being allowed to vote. She took part in the 1920 presidential election, voting for Warren G. Harding. Brown passed away in Elizabeth, New Jersey, due to old age.
Brown devoted a great part of her life to religion. She came from a family of Liberal Congregationalist and wanted to become a minister. She manage to become the first woman ever to be ordained but it was by a Methodist minister in 1853. Brown later questioned her beliefs and was accepted by the American Unitarian Association in 1875. She was a founder and a minister of the Unitarian Society of Elizabeth, New Jersey.
She didn't show affiliation for any political party but she didn't hesitate to go into a debate of any kind when it comes to women's rights. Her lectures on the topic had a somewhat political connotation and she strongly advocated that the Parliament should pass various amendments which included women’s rights.
Ever since she was a little girl, Brown didn’t like the fact that women were expected to the only certain kind of housework. Lucky for her, parents encouraged her to find what she wants to do, so she helped around the farm and even got paid for it by her father.
She realized that God is a friendly presence during her childhood. She would often go to the woods that was nearby and enjoy looking at the sky, which she believed is “a new heaven”. She got to wish to devote her life to God at eight years old but she came across many obstacles because she was a woman.
When she finally became the first woman ever to be ordained in 1853, she faced many difficulties. She might have expected that male clergy won’t think fondly of her and that she will be shouted down during her speech at the World’s Temperance Convention. But what she didn’t expect was that her sisters and friends won’t offer her moral support. Not even Lucy Stone, a member of the Congregational movement and a close friend of Brown, didn’t believe she should pursue entrance into an outdated institution she thought the church was.
When two infants died in Brown’s parish she simply couldn’t go with upholding the doctrine of the church that stated that she should pronounce them damned because they weren’t baptized. She fell into a deep emotional crisis and resigned from the South Butler church, while also re-examining her beliefs about the Congregational creed. Brown didn’t openly show her affection for any church up until 1875 when she asked acceptance to the American Unitarian Association.
Instead, she focused on lecturing about women’s rights and fighting for them. She advocated and contributed many amendments that brought in various women’s rights but she also had a couple of arguments with fellow activists. This is how she opposed Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony on the issue of marriage, claiming that a divorce cannot be allowed whenever a couple wanted it. Brown believed that family is the foundation of civilization and that marriage must be carefully guarded as it is the most binding of all human pledges.
Brown believed that men and women are equal by natural evolution and that is what she stated in her book The Sexes throughout Nature in 1875. She also advocated that married women should be allowed to work part-time. She is the only participant of the Woman’s Right Convention in 1850 to lived long enough to exercise that right in the presidential election in 1920.
“Every nursing mother, in the midst of her little dependent brood, has far more right to whine, sulk or scold, as temperament dictates, because beefsteak and coffee are not prepared for her and exactly to her taste, than any man ever had or ever can have during the present stage of human evolution.”
“If woman's sole responsibility is of the domestic type, one class will be crushed by it, and the other throw it off as a badge of poverty. The poor man's motto, ‘Women's work is never done,’ leads inevitably to its antithesis—ladies' work is never begun.
“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.”
“One thing is certain. I am not afraid to act as my conscience dictates, no matter what the world may think …”
“Mr. Darwin ... has failed to hold definitely before his mind the principle that the difference of sex, whatever it may consist in, must itself be subject to natural selection and evolution.”
Although Brown fought for women’s rights and that demanded a strong character, she wasn’t so strong emotionally, which could be seen when she fell into depression after leaving the South Butler church. Despite that, Brown always made sure to speak her mind and say what’s on her consciousness. She appreciated her husband very much and gave her best to be a good wife and mother to her children.
Philosophers & Thinkers
Lucy Stone, Martin Luther
Warren G. Harding
Music & Bands
Church music, organ music
Brown married Samuel Charles Blackwell, who was a hardware salesman, a real estate dealer and an abolitionist. They married in 1856 and had seven children, five of which survived infancy, and all those were daughters. One of them became a Methodist minister.
Antoinette Brown Blackwell: A Biography
This first biography of the 19th-century feminist and first American woman to be ordained a Christian minister is steeped in family correspondence, contemporary newspaper accounts, and Blackwell’s own work.
Friends and Sisters: Letters between Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell
The complete correspondence of two important figures in the woman suffrage and antislavery movements: Lucy Stone, woman's rights and abolitionist leader, and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, a prolific author who conducted a lifelong feminist exploration of social mores and science and who became the first woman ordained in the United States in the Protestant ministry.