A Radical Message from a Quiet Voice–Lucretia Mott

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Visitors to the Capital Building in Washington D.C. can view an austere marble sculpture featuring three pioneers in the struggle for women’s rights. Standing at the front of the group is a demure women in a Quaker bonnet—Lucretia Mott, a woman whose mild appearance is at odds with the fiery spirit that guided her life. She was a rebel who proclaimed her controversial opinions fiercely and effectively for more than half a century.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott

Born Lucretia Coffin on Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts in 1793, Lucretia became aware of the inequality faced by women while she was still very young. When she began teaching as a 17-year-old, she quickly noticed that the male teachers were paid far more than women were. She never forgot that.

It was while she was teaching that she met her future husband, James Mott. The two were married in 1811 in Philadelphia where her family had moved after leaving Nantucket and its shrinking whaling industry. James started a business and the young couple became active in the Philadelphia Quaker Meeting and soon began raising a family.

At Quaker meetings, unlike most religious groups at that time, women as well as men were allowed to speak to the group. Lucretia was such an inspiring speaker that she was soon appointed a Minister, which among Quakers was an honorary, unpaid position.

Lucretia Mott

The most contentious issue of the day was slavery, and Pennsylvania, a free state bordering two slave states, was in the middle of the debate. Although most Quakers were anti-slavery, they differed in how to support abolition. Some advocated a gradual freeing of slaves, some wanted former slaves to be resettled in Africa. Lucretia soon identified herself as one of the more radical Quakers advocating an immediate end to slavery and a full integration of former slaves into American life. To hasten the end of slavery, Lucretia refused to buy products made or harvested by slaves—sugar from the West Indies and cotton from the Southern slave states—even though her children and her husband sometimes complained about her decision.

As her children grew older, Lucretia was able to devote more of her time to social activism. She worked tirelessly for abolition and helped to found the interracial Philadelphia Female Anti-slavery Society, a group that lasted longer than any other women’s anti-slavery group in America.

In 1838, Lucretia participated in the week-long celebration of the opening of Philadelphia Hall as a major center for anti-slavery groups. Many Philadelphians objected to interracial meetings. Some yelled insults at participants to protest the presence of mixed-race groups in their city. When Lucretia gave her talk to a women’s group, her listeners could hear men and boys gathering outside the hall, threatening violence. The African American women in the audience were even more fearful than the white women that they might be targeted. To protect everyone, all the women, black and white, linked arms and walked outside together. Violence was averted that night, but the struggle was far from over.

The World Anti-Slavery Conference held in London in 1840 marked a turning point in Lucretia Mott’s life. Although she was already an outstanding spokesperson for the anti-slavery movement, neither she nor any of the other women who attended the meeting were allowed to participate in the conference. All of the women were required to sit in a separate section of the room where they could listen to the men make speeches. Despite this slap in the face, Lucretia benefited from attending the meetings because it was there that she met the young Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The two soon became close friends.

World Anti-slavery Conference 1840

Together Stanton and Mott organized a meeting in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, a meeting which is usually considered the official start of the campaign for women’s right to vote. At the close of the meeting, both of them signed the Declaration of Sentiments, a document that concluded with these words: 

Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation—in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.

Together Lucretia Mott, the quiet little Quaker, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, her more flamboyant friend, energized the women’s rights movement in America for the next half century. Neither of them lived to see women win the right to vote, but neither of them ever gave up the struggle. If you’d like to read more about Lucretia Mott, there is an excellent recent biography by Carol Faulkner called Lucretia Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America.

As for the sculpture in the Capital that honors women’s rights, that too had a long, painful path to achieve its present position. It was unveiled in 1921, but soon moved to the Crypt of the Capitol where it stood among the brooms and mops stored there. In 1995, women’s groups finally pushed Congress to vote for its return to the Rotunda. And it was finally moved there in 1997.

Winning the right to vote required great courage, persistence, and patience on the part of many women. Like those I mentioned in previous blogs, Abigail Adams, and the Grimke Sisters, Lucretia Mott deserves to be remembered as one of the strongest and most dedicated of the pioneers in women’s suffrage.

Sisters against Slavery

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As I noted in my last blog post, when America’s Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they did not address the question of whether women should be allowed to vote. Although Abigail Adams urged them to consider the rights of women, they laughed that idea off. Instead, they turned their attention to a big question the new country had to face—whether or not its citizens should be allowed to own slaves. That issue continued to grow as the 19th century began. And it had an overwhelming impact on the question of women’s rights.

By 1804, the states were almost equally divided between those which allowed slavery and those that outlawed it. The movement to abolish all slavery in America began in the northern states and by the 1820s a number of people in Pennsylvania and New England were speaking out about the evils of slavery. Although almost all Southerners supported slavery, there were a few who opposed it. Among the anti-slavery Southerners, two women stand out—Angelina and Sarah Grimke. They became the only known Southern women to work actively for the abolitionist movement.

Blake-Grimke House, 321 E. Bay St. Charleston Historic District Charleston County Photo By: Kate Stojsavljevic, Clemson University Graduate Program in HP

The Grimke sisters were born in Charleston, South Carolina, into a wealthy slave-owning family. Sarah was the older, born in 1792, while Angelina, the youngest of the family’s 14 children, was born in 1805.  Although their brothers and sisters accepted the traditional slave-owning views of their family, Sarah and Angelina rebelled. They were both devoutly religious and decided that Christian beliefs were incompatible with owning slaves. Teaching slaves to read was forbidden in South Carolina, but nonetheless the two of them enraged their father by secretly teaching some of their household slaves to read.

Eventually both Sarah and Angelina Grimke decided that living in the South was incompatible with their moral beliefs, so they moved to Philadelphia where they joined the Quakers and became active in the anti-slavery movement. Angelina admired the anti-slavery writings of William Lloyd Garrison, but when she wrote him a letter of support, he published it in his magazine The Liberator. Even though her opinions were compatible with the views of most Quakers, she was disciplined for speaking out without permission.

The idea of women speaking in public, especially when there were men in the audience, remained controversial even in the abolitionist movement. As both Angelina and Sarah Grimke became well known speakers for the anti-slavery movement, they drew more and more criticism. Catherine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wrote that women should remain silent and let men speak for the cause. In response, Angelina wrote a series of letters to Beecher asking for an explanation of exactly what a woman’s role should be. In one of her letters she wrote:

No one has yet found out just where the line of separation between them [men and women] should be drawn, and for this simple reason, that no one knows just how far below man woman is, whether she be a head shorter in her moral responsibilities, or head and shoulders, or the full length of his noble stature, below him, i.e. under his feet.  

None of the traditionalists could answer Angelina’s question to her satisfaction, so the Grimke sisters continued to be active public speakers in the anti-slavery movement. Angelina met her future husband, Theodore Dwight Weld, at an anti-slavery convention in 1836. Although Weld supported the activism of both Grimke sisters, he discouraged them from continuing their public speaking. Nonetheless because the invitations continued to arrive, neither sister completely gave up speaking before both men and women.

Abolitionist meeting

In 1838, Angelina spoke about the anti-slavery movement before the Massachusetts Legislature, thus becoming the first woman to address such a body. She also defended a woman’s right to petition as both a moral and political right. Because women could not vote, petitioning a governing body was the only means by which they could influence legislative policy and assert their status as citizens. Over time, Angelina’s speeches came to focus more on women’s rights than on abolition.

After Angelina and her husband had children, she stepped back from public speaking and devoted more of her time to correspondence and taking care of the household. Theodore Weld had serious economic problems, so he and his wife decided to open a school to support their growing family. Sarah moved in with them and both sisters taught at the school.

In1870, after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment which stated that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State…”.  Angelina and Sarah Grimke took their last public action. Both of them had grown old by this time but nonetheless they made their way to the polls during a blinding snowstorm to cast their votes. Men and boys jeered at them for the attempt, but because they were elderly women, they were not arrested. Neither, of course, were they allowed to vote. Nonetheless at least they had tried.

When the Grimke sisters died, women were still not considered full citizens. That victory would have to wait for younger generations. But in their lifetimes, both Angelina and Sarah Grimke pushed the country a little closer to acknowledging that women should indeed be allowed to be active participants in the country.