17. Antoinette Brown Blackwell made history by becoming America’s first female minister but left the pulpit to fight for feminism
Before she was even a teenager, Antoinette Brown was preaching in her family’s Congregational Church in Rochester, New York. A bright, well-educated young lady, she wanted to become a preacher. To this end, she went to Oberlin College in Ohio and, after much trying, succeeded in getting a place on the theology degree course there. Then, in 1851, she obtained a licence to preach, becoming America’s first ordained religious minister. From the pulpit, she preached on a range of topics, above all promoting equality between the genders and races. Within a year, however, she stepped down and hit the road.
After leaving her ministry, Brown focused almost all her energy on campaigning for women’s rights. While some feminists concerned themselves with getting women the vote, she believed this was not a priority. Instead, she wanted to improve the social and economic conditions of America’s women first and foremost. Only then, she believed, should the fight turn to voting. She campaigned against slavery and for temperance and argued that women should take on traditionally ‘male professions’ while men should do more domestic work. Unlike many of her peers, however, she was largely against divorce.
In 1875, Brown published her main work, The Sexes Throughout Nature. Here she argued that men and women are equal but biologically different. The book was well-received and influential. Even Charles Darwin praised the work. To this day, it remains a key text in the history of feminist thought. Brown died in 1920 at the age of 96, living just long enough to see the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women in America the vote at last.