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.

An Ambitious Aspiring Artist–May Alcott

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My interest in women who were notable in their time but did not earn the recognition of an obituary in a major newspaper led me to learn more about several fascinating

Alcott_portrait_edit2

Americans. May Alcott Nieriker, sister of Louisa May Alcott, was a devoted artist, but was never became famous. At least her life was more exciting than her fictional counterpart, Amy, in Little Women.

May Alcott was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 26, 1840 to Bronson and Abigail Alcott. As a young child she lived in the Utopian community, Fruitlands, which her father had started. The rules were strict—no animal food, not even milk for young children.  When her mother tried to milk the cow for ailing two-year-old May, her father decreed, “We don’t allow milk on this farm. Pure water is the best drink for all God’s creatures.”

“Why can’t we live the way other people do?” his wife protested. That question was one young May Alcott would ask often as she grew older, and she never found an answer.

As May grew up she was independent and ambitious.  She was determined to earn money herself and not depend on a husband’s support. It would not be easy to support herself as an artist. Many girls studied art but when they grew up, they were expected to get married and let their husbands support the family. Professional artists were almost always men. May studied art in Boston, and she gave art lessons, but made so little money that she had to turn to teaching.

May’s life was dramatically changed by the success of Louisa’s book, Little Women.  Now there was money for new clothes and books and even travel. For years May had longed to study art in Europe. The great museums and picturesque castles, churches, and cities

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Louisa May Alcott

 

of Italy and France were unlike anything in America. May had never seen famous paintings or statues. She had learned about European paintings by looking at copies made by Americans who traveled abroad. Some of the copies were good, but they were only small imitations of what the artist had created. Now at last she would be able to see the glowing colors of the originals.

Two years after the publication of Little Women, Louisa finished writing An Old Fashioned Girl. Now the two sisters had their chance to travel. On April 2, 1870, May and Louisa and their friend Alice Bartlett sailed to France. Everything was different from what they had been accustomed to in New England. Instead of fresh white clapboard houses, they saw homes, some of them centuries old, built of stone. Instead of simple wooden churches, they saw shadowy cathedrals with statues, candles, and stained glass windows. May carried her sketchbook everywhere, always ready to capture the changing sights that surprised her so much.

The study years in Europe were May’s happiest times, but she and Louisa could not remain there long. Their mother was growing old and ill; their sister Anna’s husband died. Louisa went home first to help out and then May followed. For the next several years family responsibilities tied May down. It wasn’t until 1876 that she had a chance to return to France.

This time, May went directly to Paris where she joined two friends from home, Kate and Rose Peckham. The three of them settled into comfortable lodgings and arranged for art lessons. Suitable art classes for women were not easy to find because art students learned to draw people by having live models in class. For many people the idea of women looking at people who were nude or lightly clothed was shocking. Even worse was the idea of having men and women in the same class looking at these models. Because of this, many of the famous art schools in Paris did not accept women. May was disappointed, but she made the best of her situation. She found a teacher, Monsieur Krug, who solved the problem by accepting only women in his classes.

Not only was May a successful student, but one of her paintings was chosen from among the thousands submitted for the Paris Salon exhibit of 1877. May was eager to share her triumph with her family. No longer would Louisa be the only successful Alcott. May wrote to her mother:

Who would have imagined such good fortune, and so strong a proof that Lu does not monopolize all the Alcott talent. Ha! Ha! Sister, this is the first feather plucked from your cap, and I shall endeavor to fill mine with so many waving in the breeze that you will be quite ready to lay down your pen and rest on your laurels already won.

Alcott_Paris salon

 

When the first viewing day of the Salon arrived, May went very early to see how her picture was hung. She found it was dwarfed by the huge canvases around it, but thought it held its own because the hanging committee had placed it at eye level where everyone could easily see it. Many of the artists and visitors complimented her on her painting. She felt very festive in her fashionable black silk dress and was surprised at how easily she mingled with the smart, artistic crowd. At last her patience and persistence were being rewarded. After years of being a student, she was finally being recognized as a real artist. She moved to London to pursue her career.

Meanwhile in Concord, the Alcott family was struggling with May’s mother’s failing health. Louisa wrote to urge May to come home and spend some time with her mother. May was torn between wanting to return to Concord and longing to stay abroad. She knew her mother missed her, and she wanted to be with her family at this difficult time. One day she walked to the steamship office to buy a ticket to sail to America, but when she got to the office, she turned back. She was afraid leaving Europe would mean giving up all her artistic hopes. Her dream was to return home with a strong record of artistic achievement to make her mother proud.

In November, that dream ended when May received word that her mother had died. She was overwhelmed with grief and felt guilty about her decision to remain in Europe. Although American friends were kind and helpful, May spent most of her time alone. She avoided people who came to express their sympathy, because she found it difficult to talk about her mother without crying. Instead, she took long walks through the dark, rainy London streets and spent hours in Westminster Abbey listening to organ music. She wrote to Louisa, “I try to do as she would have me and perhaps shall work the better for the real suffering I never knew till now.”

One of her boarding house friends was a young Swiss businessman named Ernest Nieriker. During the darkest days of her grief, she could hear him playing the violin in his room across the hall from hers. He knew the music cheered her, so he would leave his door open as he played.  He also offered to read to her in the evenings when her eyes were tired, or to play chess with her. He and May soon became close friends and their friendship slowly turned into love. Although he earned his living in business, Ernest was deeply interested in both art and music. May found him very congenial, and he encouraged and appreciated her work.

By March, there was another artistic triumph to celebrate. May had two pictures accepted at the Ladies Exhibition in London. But soon she had an even greater event to write home about. Ernest asked her to marry him! He was several years younger than she was, but they shared a love of music and art. Best of all, Ernest encouraged May to continue her artistic career.

May’s father and sisters were astonished at this sudden engagement, but even more startling news was soon to come. Within a few days of their engagement, Ernest received unexpected news. He would have to leave London for at least a year to work for his business in either France or Russia. May and Ernest were unhappy at the thought of being separated for such a long time and Ernest made a bold suggestion:

Why should we not have this year together? Life seems too short to lose so much. If you will consent to forego a fine wedding and fine trousseau and begin with me now, we can enjoy so much together.   

And so May’s life took another turn for the better. The young couple was very happy and soon May was pregnant. She looked forward to having a child and to continuing her artistic career with Ernest’s help. Once again things went wrong. May died a few weeks after the birth of her healthy daughter.

Despite her early death, which meant that she was never able to fully realize her talents and achieve her goals her life serves as a model for many women who came later. She faithfully pursued her goals and tried to achieve success without sacrificing her family or the people she loved. Surely she deserves to be remembered.