Lillie Devereux Blake – 1833 – 1913
Lillie Devereux was born Elizabeth Johnson Devereux on August 12, 1833 in Raleigh, North Carolina on a plantation bordering the Roanoke River. She was called “Lillie” by her father, an endearment that followed her through her life. Her father died when she was four and her mother moved the family to New Haven Connecticut where Lillie spent the rest of her childhood. She was educated in private schools, and was tutored in music, mathematics and philosophy, subjects not usually taught to young women of that time.
In 1855 she married Frank Omsted who died in 1859, leaving her virtually penniless with two young children to support, and to that end she began a writing career, writing articles and stories for newspapers and magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, and Harper’s Weekly, as well as five novels. Her writing met with moderate success and allowed her financial independence until her marriage to Grinfill Blake in 1866.
Around 1869 she turned her attention to the woman suffrage movement, and began writing and lecturing on the subject. She served as president of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association from 1879 to 1890, and of the New York City Woman Suffrage League from 1886 to 1900.
But Lillie differed with other suffrage leaders on some vital points; Susan B. Anthony and others thought the focus of their efforts should be solely on suffrage, on winning the vote. Lillie thought they should be working on complete equality on all issues concerning women, not only suffrage. She worked for legislation that would ensure women could be recognized as joint guardians of their children; that Civil War nurses be eligible for pensions; that women physicians be available in mental institutions and matrons be on hand in prisons. She succeeded in seeing passage of legislation that allowed women to retain their citizenship after marrying a foreigner. Her interests and focus were more diverse than other suffrage leaders and this led to division and dissent in the organizations she served. The fact that she was successful in achieving many of these goals did not always sit well with others, yet she persisted until ill health finally forced her retirement from public life; she died December 30, 1913.
Lillie Devereux Blake, like many of her contemporaries, began life with arbitrary roles forced upon her. She railed against those roles, and followed her own path, making both enemies and friends along the way. But she never wavered in her devotion to her main objective – the achievement of total equality for men and women in all things.
Happy Birthday, Lillie Devereux Blake!