Lillie Devereux Blake, a 19th century American writer and women’s rights reformer, played an important, though often overlooked, presence in social movements in the United States.
In 1833, Elizabeth Johnson Devereux was born in Raleigh, North Carolina to southerner George Pollock Devereux and northerner Sarah Elizabeth Johnson. Following her father’s death in 1837, her mother moved her two daughters back to her home in New Haven, Connecticut, where the young Lillie attended the Apthorp School for Young Ladies.
After a minor scandal involving a flirtation with a Yale undergraduate student, Lillie married Frank Umsted in 1855. The birth of two daughters was tragically followed by Umstead’s death in 1859. To support herself and her children, Lillie turned to writing.
Following the publication of a short story, “A Lonely House,” in the Atlantic Monthly, Lillie published two novels, Southwold: A Novel (1859) and Rockford; or, Sunshine and Storm (1862). During the American Civil War, she worked as a journalist and war correspondent from Washington, D.C., making her one of the earliest women war correspondents. Her writings appeared in newspapers such as the New York Evening Post, the New York World, the Philadelphia Press, and Forney’s War Press.
Biographer Grace Farrell attributes an anonymous article – “The Social Condition of Woman,” published in The Knickerbocker in 1863 – to Lillie. This article signified her growing personal commitment to the tenets of the women’s rights movement. Here, Lillie critiqued the way social mores enabled men to dominate women: “Thus having assigned to her this subordinate position, and having made stern rules to keep her there, he has educated and treated her as an inferior, till only in a few rare instances has she been able to rise sufficiently above the restraints of her position to assert her equality.”
Lillie married Grinfill Blake in 1866. Now Lillie Devereux Blake, she began lecturing about women’s rights on the lyceum circuit, a public speaking forum which expanded significantly following the Civil War. In 1869, she began her official connection with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony’s National Woman Suffrage Association. Continuing her journalistic interests, Blake’s writings were published in their radical suffrage newspaper, The Revolution. However, Blake was not simply interested in women’s rights and women’s suffrage, for she espoused a lifelong commitment to education and other reforms.
The novels she wrote in the coming years would demonstrate how her own interests revealed the interconnections between social reform during the nineteenth century. Forced Vows; or, A Revengeful Woman’s Fate (1870) interrogated how a lack of autonomy could lead women to be coerced into romantic relationships and marriage. Fettered for Life; or, Lord and Master: A Story of To-Day (1874) described the different ways repressive 19th century attitudes toward women affected women of different social classes.
Alongside her continuing advocacy of women’s suffrage, Blake made an application for young women – including her daughters – to be admitted to Columbia College in 1873. Although initially unsuccessful, this act eventually contributed to the foundation of Barnard College in 1889, now part of Columbia University.
When Blake died in 1913, she had worked for many years as a suffragist, writer and novelist, and advocate for education, among other reforms. Since, until very recently, Lillie Devereux Blake was largely a forgotten 19th century social reformer, it is fitting to remember her important contribution to the history of women’s rights and the legacy she left in her many writings and novels.
Written for Sheroes of History by Ana Stevenson. Ana is a Visting Scholar in the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh. @DrAnaStevenson
Find out more…
To read Grace Farrell’s biography, check out Lillie Devereux Blake: Retracing a Life Erased.
For more about the literary foundations for Lillie Devereux Blake’s writings, including links to some of her novels, check out Ana’s article on U.S. Studies Online.
For a longer biographical sketch, see Maggie MacLean’s biography on Civil War Women.