Book Review: Antoinette Brown Blackwell
Posted October 13, 2014on:
Elizabeth Cazden, Antoinette Brown Blackwell: A Biography, Old Westbury, New York: The Feminist Press, 1983, 316 pp.
I’ve known who Antoinette Brown Blackwell was for many years–she was the first woman ordained to the Christian ministry since the New Testament days. She was ordained in 1853 by the historical predecessors of my denomination, the Congregationalists that are now part of the United Church of Christ. I’ve cheered for that history, shouted her name in triumph, and celebrated its connection to our denomination for a long time. However, I’ve never known anything else about Antoinette Brown Blackwell.
Recently, I was asked to serve on a team re-imagining the UCC’s Antoinette Brown Award, and subsequently submitted a proposal for an article about her to Common Lot, the UCC women’s magazine. That article was accepted, and tells more about my journey to get to know the Rev. Antoinette Brown Blackwell. (Link to be posted when article, called “Deciphering Antoinette,” is published in November.) The first thing I did was order this book, and I am grateful it was still available. This review will be brief, because most of my reflections on the material covered in the book are discussed in that article.
Cazden’s biography was immediately recognizable to me in its genre and date. It was part of the movement in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s to reclaim women’s history, to recover and rescue women from historical invisibility. Many new historical works were written in this period, and I read many of them in my undergraduate years as a student of history and women’s studies. Returning to this work showed me how well works like these have withstood the test of time, as Cazden’s portrait did not feel dated in any way. The information presented and the style of the story she told were simple and fascinating. She draws her material from the extensive writings of Antoinette Brown Blackwell herself, including her correspondence, her speeches and her journals.
One of the pieces of her story that was most interesting to me was her connection to the 19th century suffragettes. I had imagined her to be deeply pious, and somehow because of that apolitical. She was indeed pious, but she lived out her faith through concrete engagement in the major political issues of her day–abolition, suffrage, temperance and more. I have long studied the lives of those political women like Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Julia Ward Howe–but never before had I placed Antoinette Brown Blackwell into their milieu. In fact, I learned from Cazden, they were her closest friends and companions. That changed my perception of her remarkably, and for the better.
Two other things stood out for me because they were strikingly true for women in ministry still today, more than 150 years later. First, Antoinette Brown Blackwell did not fit easily with the suffragettes because of her faith, nor did she fit neatly in the church because of her feminism. This remains true today, as female clergy find that their Christianity is alien among activists who reject religion as patriarchal, and their political activism is alien among clergy who focus on church-related issues. The difference, however, is that there are now many, many more of us. We may not fit easily into those groups, but we have each other as sisters in ministry, and we hold tightly to one another.
Second, Antoinette Brown Blackwell struggled mightily and publicly to renegotiate the roles of women and men in the household, arguing that liberating women to have careers of their own required men to step up and take on more responsibility for family and home life. Again, this struggle rings true even 150 years later. While most of the women in ministry I know who are married and/or mothers intentionally sought partners willing to share the load, it is still a constant source of stress, guilt and compromise.
As I say more extensively in the article, Cazden’s biography was a gift because it makes Antoinette Brown Blackwell come alive with a depth and richness of personality, struggle, courage and quirks. I am grateful for Cazden and for her subject.