Unconscious Independence

daguerreotype portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell

Daguerreotype portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell (c. 1841-1851)

Courtesy of Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute

Elizabeth was born in England on February 3, 1821, the third eldest of nine children born to Samuel And Hannah (Lane) Blackwell. Her father was a successful sugar refiner, but more importantly to Elizabeth's legacy, he was a Dissenter from the Church of England who, despite his chosen profession's reliance on slave labor, eschewed the racism of his time. He raised his children in the ideas of abolition and educated his daughters as well as his sons. The family emigrated to New York City after a fire destroyed Mr. Blackwell's factory in 1832. In hopes of expanding the business, the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1838 only to lose their father to a "bilious fever" mere months after their move. His death left the family in precarious circumstances, which the three eldest sisters remediated by taking work as teachers.

Blackwell Family Photograph

Blackwell Family photograph (1906)

Courtesy of Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute

"Our brothers being younger than the three elder sisters, habits of unconscious independence amongst the sisters were formed, which became a matter of course."

Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women: Autobiographical Sketches by Elizabeth Blackwell (1895)

None of the Blackwell sisters would ever marry. In the mid-19th century, being an unmarried female was a tenuous position and demonstrated a fierce commitment to independence. It explains the Family's involvement in the Equal Rights Movement.

Portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell

Portrait (sketch) of Elizabeth Blackwell (c. 1885-1886)

Courtesy of Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute

"The three elder sisters set zealously to work, and in time established a day and boarding school for young ladies;…For the next few years…we managed to support the family and maintain a home."

Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women: Autobiographical Sketches by Elizabeth Blackwell (1895)

All five of the Blackwell sisters would earn a living as teachers. Once the younger brothers were of sufficient age to take care of the household expenses, providing for their mother and at various points welcoming a sister home for a brief time, the sisters pursued their own ends, often to the envy of their brothers.