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Antoinette Louisa Brown Blackwell

From: United States: New Jersey, New York
Fields: Human Rights, Religion
Key Words/Phrases: first American woman ordained minister, activist
Antoinette Louisa Brown was the first American woman ordained as minister. She was born May 20, 1825 in Henrietta, New York, U.S.A. and later attended Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. Oberlin was the first coeducational school to grant college degrees to women and to accept students of all races. Women, however, were expected to clean rooms, wash clothes and serve food for the male students. While studying at Oberlin College Brown met and became lifelong friends with Lucy Stone, a suffragist and an abolitionist. In 1847 Brown finished the literary course taken by most women. She encountered serious objections from the faculty when she then decided to study theology. They did not think it an appropriate field of study for a woman. However, the school charter decreed that no student could be excluded on the basis of sex, so Brown prevailed and finished the theological course in 1850. The Oberlin College faculty, however, refused to award her a college degree and she did not receive a license to preach. The degree was eventually awarded to her twenty eight years later.

Brown traveled the lecture circuit for two years speaking in favor of abolition of slavery and temperance (prohibition of alcohol consumption) and preached whenever she had an opportunity. This was at a time when public speaking by women was considered taboo. She was often shouted down by male preachers. Finally, on September 15, 1853 Antoinette Brown was ordained a minister of the First Congregational Church in South Butler, New York. That same year she was also an official delegate to the World's Temperance Convention in New York but she was not allowed to speak. In 1854 Brown withdrew as minister of her congregation due to theological differences. She found she had difficulty supporting the idea of the original sin and predestination. She then became a Unitarian.

Brown took her ministry to the slums and prisons of New York City. Her observations of the poor and people with mental disorders led her to publish articles on these subjects in the New York Tribune owned by Horace Greeley. In 1855 she published Shadows of Our Social System.

In 1856 she married Samuel Blackwell, brother of Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, and a brother-in-law of Lucy Stone. The Blackwells had five daughters (two other children died in infancy) and Brown now focused on raising them. Though she stayed at home taking care of her family, Brown continued writing. In 1869 she published Studies in General Science linking scientific knowledge and women's equality. In 1871 she published the novel The Island Neighbors. In The Sexes Throughout Nature, published in 1875, she claimed that Darwin failed to understand the roles of the sexes. Altogether Brown published ten books in her lifetime.

She returned to the lecture circuit in the 1870s after her husband's business failed. She was a strong supporter of the women's suffrage and wrote magazine articles in support of this cause. Her articles were published in the Woman's Journal, edited by Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Blackwell. She also continued her religious activities. She still preached and even ordained two women preachers. Brown served as a pastor emeritus of All Souls Unitarian Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey from 1908 until her death. In 1920, when Brown was ninety five, she was able to vote for the first time, after the Nineteenth Amendment gave women in the U.S.A. the right to vote. Antoinette Brown Blackwell died November 5, 1921 in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1997.

1. The Book of Women's Firsts: Breakthrough Achievements of Almost 1,000 American Women by Phyllis J. Read and Bernard L. Witlieb, Random House, 1992
2. American Women's History by Doris Weatherford, Prentice Hall General Reference, 1994
3. Women's World: A Timeline of Women in History by Irene M. Franck and David M. Brownstone, HarperCollins Publishers, 1995
4. Lost Heroines: Little-Known Women Who Changed Their World by Rebecca Bartholomew, Uintah Springs Press, 1996


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