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Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793–1880)

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In 1853, Lucretia Mott described the Quaker women of the Massachusetts community into which she had been born. “Look at the heads of those women; they can mingle with men; they are not triflers; they have intelligent subjects of conversation.” Quakers believed that all people were equal before God and, so, every human being’s autonomy deserved equal respect. They extended this belief not only to women but also to blacks and, so, became leaders in both the women’s rights and anti-slavery movements, as well as in such causes as peace and liberal religion. No Quaker was more active in these reforms than the five-foot tall Lucretia Mott, who weighed less than 100 pounds.

Until recently, however, Lucretia has stood in the wings of history. Perhaps because she spoke in religious terms or because she wore an unassuming Quaker air, she has been overshadowed by her more flamboyant associates. For example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton is commonly credited with America’s first women’s rights convention, the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Yet it was Lucretia who suggested the convention; she participated in its organization as fully as Stanton; she was the first signatory on the convention’s declaration; she opened and closed the proceedings over which her husband presided. Happily, historians have started to rediscover the legacy of this diminutive, gentle radical.

On January 3, 1793, Lucretia Coffin was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where her Quaker family had lived since the settlement’s establishment more than a century before. Indeed, Lucretia was Benjamin Franklin’s distant cousin. Her father was a sea captain and, in the tradition of women who must fare for months without men, her mother ran not only a store but also the family and its religious concerns.

In 1804, the Coffins moved to Boston where Lucretia attended school until she was sent away, at thirteen, to a coeducational Quaker boarding school in New York State. She soon became an assistant teacher without pay. Even experienced female teachers received half the pay of their male counterparts; this made a deep impression on Lucretia. She later wrote,

The injustice of this [pay gap] was so apparent, that I early resolved to claim for my sex all that an impartial Creator had bestowed.

At school Lucretia met fellow teacher and Quaker James Mott, whom she married in 1811. The couple settled in Philadelphia, to which the Coffin family had relocated and where Lucretia would spend the rest of her days.

James both encouraged and shared his wife’s devotion to social causes. For example, although he initially made a living by trading in cotton and wool, he later shunned the financial advantages of cotton because of its close association with slavery.

Between 1812 and 1828, Lucretia bore six children, five of whom survived to adulthood. In 1818, partly in response to grief over her first son’s death, Lucretia began to speak at Quaker meetings and gained a reputation for unusual eloquence. In 1821, she became a full-fledged minister.

A few years thereafter, a schism called the Great Separation of 1827 occurred within Philadelphia’s Quaker society. The itinerant preacher Elias Hicks argued for religious liberalism: that is, for every person to follow his own conscience and interpretation of the Bible.

Quakers who were persuaded to follow “the light within” were known as Hicksites and included the Motts. Lucretia stated,

My convictions led me to adhere to the sufficiency of the light within us, resting on truth as authority, rather than “taking authority for truth.”

She stressed “practical righteousness” — righteousness in practice through which people lived their moral principles. Thus, the Mott home later became a shelter on the Underground Railroad by which runaway slaves fled to freedom in the North.
Mott’s anti-slavery activity

In 1831, the Motts met the libertarian abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who had just started his now-renowned periodical, The Liberator.

Abolitionism was the radical anti-slavery movement that called for an immediate cessation of the “peculiar institution” without compensation to slave owners on the grounds that blacks were “self-owners.” Every black, simply by being human, had an inalienable right of self-jurisdiction over his own body. Garrison also argued for women to assume prominent roles in the anti-slavery movement, a stand that drew protest and ridicule from many fellow reformers. The Motts became Garrisonian abolitionists.

In 1833, a convention in Philadelphia established the national American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). The Society declared slavery to be against the natural law even though it was sanctioned by the Constitution — a document Garrison called “a covenant with hell.”

Lucretia was initially unable to join the AASS because of its males-only policy. Instead, she fell back on the organizational skills she had developed in Quaker groups and helped to form a women’s auxiliary, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, in 1833. Accompanied by James, whose presence gave her “respectability,” she began to travel extensively through the Northeast and Midwest to speak at the Non-Resistance [peace] Society, various Quaker meetings, and anti-slavery ones. Although portraits depict her always in plain dress topped by a white Quaker cap, Lucretia’s eloquence and experience allowed her to move easily onto a general stage.

Then, when AASS opened its doors to women, she joined the executive committee of the Pennsylvania branch.

In 1837, Lucretia helped to form the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in New York City. The next year, she organized the second convention to meet in Philadelphia at Pennsylvania Hall, which had been newly constructed by the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. As the women convened, a pro-slavery mob of thousands surrounded the hall; they were temporarily quieted by the mayor, who blocked their entrance. Inside, Lucretia called for calm and ordered the assembly to leave the building in pairs, with each black woman walking out arm in arm with a white woman.

When the mayor departed, the mob broke into the hall, set it on fire, and left yelling “On to the Motts’!” Lucretia and James were saved by a fast-thinking friend who claimed to know the way and, then, led the mob in a wrong direction.

It was not to be Lucretia’s last encounter with a mob. In March 1840, while on an anti-slavery speaking tour in Delaware, a mob grabbed her traveling companion, the Quaker abolitionist Daniel Neall. When Lucretia appealed to the mob to take her instead, they refused because of her womanhood. She replied, “I ask no courtesy at your hands on account of my sex.” Nevertheless, Neall was tarred and feathered.

Lucretia’s first and only trip abroad must have proved a disappointment. She was one of six woman delegates chosen to represent the American anti-slavery movement at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, to which she traveled with her husband. The female delegates were barred from sitting with men in the body of the assembly; instead they were forced to follow the proceedings from balcony seats behind curtains. Any anger they felt may have been tempered by the actions of Garrison and several prominent abolitionist men who sat with them in protest.
Mott and women’s rights

While sequestered behind the curtains, Lucretia engaged in a long conversation with a woman upon whom she exerted pivotal influence: Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Those conversations were the spark that became the first women’s rights convention in America.

The convention would take eight years to materialize. In the summer of 1848, Lucretia and her sister Martha C. Wright visited Stanton’s home in Seneca Falls, New York. Also present were the Quaker reformers Mary Ann McClintock and Jane Hunt. The women must have discussed the recently passed New York Married Woman’s Property Rights Act. De facto property rights were common for married Quaker women but attaining them for other married women in New York had required 12 years of tumultuous public debate. In one afternoon, the five women resolved to call a convention on “the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.”

Five days later, on July 19, the Seneca Falls Convention opened at the Wesleyan Methodist Church with James presiding. The event was lightly publicized but an estimated 250 people, including men, attended.

The Convention’s Declaration of Sentiments, written by Stanton, used the Declaration of Independence as a model to declare, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal . . . .” Eleven “resolutions” to secure rights and equality for women were also delivered; the ninth resolution called for women’s suffrage. Every resolution save the ninth was passed unanimously. The fact that Lucretia argued vigorously against its passage is best understood within the broader context of the Quaker attitude toward politics.

Quakers commonly viewed electoral politics as sectarian and apart from the moral pietism by which their lives were guided. Lucretia embraced a strategy that Garrison called “nonresistance”; evils such as women’s oppression were best remedied through “moral suasion” — a combination of persuasion, education, and moral example. Unlike Stanton, Lucretia did not consider the vote to be pivotal to women’s rights. She considered a call for suffrage to be sensationalism that distracted from other, more important measures such as employment opportunities. Indeed, at Seneca Falls, she appealed “for the securing to woman equal participation with man in the various trades, professions, and commerce.” Again and again, she stressed educational and employment opportunities as the keys to equality.

Two weeks later, at a women’s rights convention in Rochester, Lucretia delivered the famous speech “Discourse on Woman,” which was later issued as a book (1850). She ascribed women’s lower social status to inadequate education, not to an inferior nature.

Woman’s property has been taxed, equally with that of men, to sustain colleges endowed by the States; but they have not been permitted to enter those high seminaries of learning. . . . Let woman then go on — not asking favors, but claiming as a right the removal of all hindrances to her elevation in the scale of being.

Thereafter, Lucretia’s commitment to women’s rights expanded. She regularly attended conventions and was elected president of the Syracuse Convention in 1852.
The Civil War

In 1861, the Civil War pushed other social causes into the background as reformers focused on the battlefield. Lucretia did not support the war. As a pacifist, she believed nonviolence was the only moral or practical way to end slavery. Even afterward, she did not credit the war as being responsible for ending slavery. She stated,

I regard the abolition of slavery as being much more the result of this moral warfare [the pre-war anti-slavery campaign] . . . than coming from the battlefield.

During the war, Lucretia continued to work for education reform, especially for free blacks and women. In 1864, she was instrumental in founding Swarthmore College near Philadelphia, which expressed the religious liberal ideas of Hicksite Quakers, including coeducation.

After the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery, Lucretia returned to a rejuvenated women’s rights movement. Unlike many abolitionists, however, she did not cease to work for black freedmen. She pushed for both women’s and black suffrage.

In 1866, Lucretia was elected president of the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) established by Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to “secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color, or sex.” In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment granted the vote only to men. Many woman activists shifted focus to women’s suffrage. By 1869, however, the AERA had split bitterly into two factions over the question of deemphasizing advocacy of black rights; the rival American Woman Suffrage Association was formed. Lucretia tried unsuccessfully to heal the hostile breach. In doing so, she was undoubtedly hindered by poor health and grief at the death of her beloved husband the year before. Nevertheless, she assumed the thankless but necessary role of peacemaker until her death.

Meanwhile, Lucretia also continued to advocate religious liberalism. In 1867, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she helped to form the Free Religious Association. The impetus that prompted her lifelong advocacy of religious tolerance was: “Where God is, there must be true liberty on religious freedom.”

In 1878, in her 85th year, Lucretia delivered her last public address at the 30th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention in Rochester.

In his autobiography, the statesman and reformer Carl Schurz described how she must have appeared:

I thought her the most beautiful old lady I had ever seen. Her features were of exquisite fineness. Not one of the wrinkles with which age had marked her face, would one have wished away. Her dark eyes beamed with intelligence and benignity. She received me with gentle grace.

On November 11, 1880, Lucretia died of pneumonia. Posthumously inducted into the U.S. National Women’s Hall of Fame, she has yet to receive full recognition. Instead, her life reveals the type of reformer whom history often neglects: a person whose quiet passion for justice burns without flicker through decades of unrelenting work. She was a woman who gently shifted the world toward freedom and truth but whose very gentleness acts against her legacy.

For additional articles on current events by Ms. McElroy, please visit the Commentary section of our website.

This article originally appeared in the August 2006 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).