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Lillie Devereux Blake (1835–1913) was an American woman suffragist and reformer, born in Raleigh, North Carolina, and educated in New Haven, Connecticut.


She was born Elizabeth Johnson Devereux to George Pollok Devereux and Sarah Elizabeth Johnson. It was George Devereux that called his daughter "Lilly," giving her the name she would later adopt as her own. Her father, a plantation owner in North Carolina, died in 1837. At this point, Sarah Elizabeth Johnson took her two daughters and moved back to her family in Connecticut. Lillie grew up in New Haven, Connecticut where she studied at Miss Apthorp's school for girls before receiving further education from Yale tutors.

Lillie’s close connection to Yale turned into a minor scandal. Lillie Devereux was a renowned belle, who at 16 wrote that she intended to redress the wrongs done to her sex by trifling with men’s hearts. Although she abandoned this particular formulation of feminism, the difficulties of expressing her independence within the limited roles allowed by her social station would prove a continuing theme in her life. In this case, a Yale undergraduate was expelled for being involved with her in what was called a disgraceful affair. The student was an admirer whose affections were too serious. She rejected him and he retaliated with stories implying a sexual relationship. He was punished by the college for impugning her character. In her autobiography, Lillie Blake denied that a disgraceful affair had taken place and expressed regret that the student had been expelled. She also noted that the story was not taken very seriously in social circles as she still received offers of marriage.

In 1855 she married Frank G. Q. Umsted, a Philadelphia lawyer. Her husband died in 1859 (after he apparently committed suicide) leaving her with two children to support. Blake began to write feverishly to support herself and her daughters: she wrote short stories, novels, newspaper and magazine articles. Her first story, A Lonely House, appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. In the next few years, she produced two successful novels, Southwold (1859) and Rockford (1862). What generated the most money and fame for Blake, however, was her job as a correspondent in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War.

Blake’s early fiction modeled itself on the popular sentimental fiction of the time, but became subversive. Her stories for popular magazines, published under her own name and various noms de plum, depicted strong female protagonists in standard sentimental plots which reflected her own resistance to the roles that she was expected to fill in her own life. Her later fiction included the realism that she gained from her journalism experience. It also showed a more explicit consciousness of women’s issues. Her most famous novel Fettered for Life, or, Lord and Master: A Story of To-Day is an attempt to draw attention to the myriad of complex issues facing women.

In 1866 she married Grinfill Blake, a wealthy New York merchant. She was one of the active promoters of the movement that resulted in the founding of Barnard College. In 1869, she visited the Women's Bureau in New York and soon after, began speaking all over the United States in support of female enfranchisement. She earned a reputation as a freethinker and gained fame when she attacked the well known lectures of Morgan Dix, a clergyman who asserted that woman’s inferiority was supported by the Bible. Her lectures, published as Woman’s Place To-Day rejected this idea, asserting in one instance that if Eve was inferior to Adam because she was created after him, then by the same logic Adam was inferior to the fishes. Blake testified before the New York Constitutional Commission of 1873 in support for women's suffrage. Along with Matilda Joslyn Gage, she signed the 1876 Centennial Women's Rights Declaration. She was president of the New York State Woman's Suffrage Association from 1879 to 1890 and of the New York City Woman's Suffrage League from 1886 to 1900. Blake completely broke ties with the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1900 when Susan B. Anthony, who was retiring as the leader of the organization, selected Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Howard to succeed her. Blake had withdrawn her candidacy in the interests of harmony. For years, Blake and Anthony had disagreed on the basic purpose of the women's movement. Anthony wanted to focus solely on suffrage; Blake wanted to pursue a broader course of reform. This split in strategy was caused by a deeper theoretical divide. Blake developed a theory of gender that was radical for her time. She argued that gender roles are learned behaviors, and that women and men shared a common nature. Therefore, women should have the same rights as men in all areas. Anthony and her followers instead emphasized the unique nature of women, their separate sphere, and innate moral authority as justification for their right to suffrage. This conflict, among others that Blake took part in, helps to explain the way she is remembered, or not remembered, in the context of the woman’s movement.

Blake went on to create the National Legislative League. She worked on improving immigration laws for women and furthering equality in society. In addition, Blake helped establish pensions for Civil War nurses and also worked on granting mothers joint custody of their children. She wanted to have women involved in civic affairs and encouraged them to study law in school. She was the author of the law providing for matrons in the police stations, passed in 1891. Blake was an avid writer and her writings also include: Fettered for Life (1872), a novel dealing with the woman's suffrage question; Woman's Place To-day (1883), a series of lectures in reply to Dr. Morgan Dix's lenten sermons on the “Calling of a Christian Woman”;[1] A Daring Experiment (1894).

P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is named after her[2]



  1. Wikisource-logo.svg "Blake, Lillie Devereaux". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. 1900. 
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