Lucretia Coffin Mott in 1842 (1793–1880) was an American Quaker, abolitionist, social reformer, and proponent of women’s rights. She is said to be one of the first American feminists in the early 19th century, & she surely was an early advocate for women’s political power & influence in America, where women could not vote until 1920.
Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793-1880), Quaker minister, abolitionist, & pioneer in the movement for woman’s rights, was born in Nantucket, Mass., where her ancestors had lived since the island’s first settlement in 1659. She was the 2nd daughter of 7 children born to Thomas Coffin, a sea captain in the China trade, & Anna (Folger) Coffin, who kept a shop of East India goods.
Anna Coffin’s portrait, now in the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College, bears out what her daughter later said in tribute to the Quaker women of Nantucket: “Look at the heads of those women; they can mingle with men; they are not triflers; they have intelligent subjects of conversation” (Proceedings, Women’s Rights Convention, 1853, p. 65).
The Quaker community of Nantucket was in a peculiar sense a woman’s world, for the Society of Friends had always equated the spiritual gifts of women & men, & the long absences of the men folk on whaling & trading voyages left religious & practical affairs largely in the hands of the women. “I grew up,” Lucretia Mott recalled, “so thoroughly inbued with women’s rights that it was the most important question of my life from a very early day” (Cromwell, p. 125).
In 1804, her father having become a merchant, the Coffin family moved to Boston, where Lucretia attended both private & public schools. At 13, she was sent to the Friends’ boarding school at Nine Partners, near Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where, after 2 years, she was appointed an assistant teacher without salary. The fact that even experienced women teachers were paid less than half what men received impressed her with “the unequal condition of women,” & made her resolve to claim for herself & her sex “all that an impartial Creator had bestowed” (Hallowell, p 38).
When the Coffins moved again in 1809, this time to Philadelphia. James Mott, a fellow teacher at Nine Partners, settled there too, taking a position in Thomas Coffin’s hardware business. On Apr. 10, 1811, he & Lucretia were married in the Pine Street Meetinghouse. They made a striking couple: he a tall, blond, kindly appearing man, dignified in demeanor & deliberate in speech; she a diminutive brunette with a high, broad forehead, intense, burning eyes, a vivacious manner, & a tart tongue (her schoolmates on Nantucket had caller her a “spitfire,” & that irrepressible trait still occasionally broke through the Quaker sweetness & serenity with which in later life it was overlaid). Despite differences in temperament, however, a complete harmony of interest subsisted between them throughout the 57 years of their married life. James Mott shared all his wife’s convictions, supported her in all her unpopular causes, &, by accompanying her on speaking tours, lent he public appearances a respectability which other feminist lectures lacked. Six children were born to them between 1812 - 1828: Anna, Thomas (who died in infancy), Maria, a second Thomas, Elizabeth, & Martha.
Grief over the death of her first-born son Thomas in 1817, turned Lucretia Mott’s thoughts increasingly to religion. In 1818 she made her first “appearance in the ministry” in Quaker meeting, & 3 years later she was officially recorded as a minister. It was an easy transition from the ministers’ gallery of a Friends’ meetinghouse to the public platform, from which she was presently speaking with a self-assurance, facility, & eloquence almost unknown among women in that day.
Though she always clung to Quaker plainness in speech & dress-her portraits show her in white Quaker cap, shawl, & dove tray dress- she grew restless, as years went by, within the rigid limits of the Quaker discipline. When the “Great Separation” of 1827 divided Friends into “Orthodox” & “Hicksite” branches, she & her husband associated themselves with the party of Elias Hicks, who rejected the growing tendencies toward evangelical orthodoxy & arbitrary control by the Elders. Disowned by Twelfth Street Meeting, they joined the newly formed Hicksite meeting on Cherry Street, in whose activities both soon assumed leading roles.
In her preaching Lucretia Mott avoided theological questions & stressed “practical righteousness.” It is clear, however, that her thought was steadily maturing toward a position considerably in advance of the views of most Hicksite Friends & approximating the “rational supernaturalism” of the Unitarians. Her reading of Noah Worcester & William Ellery Channing contributed to this development, but not more than her study of certain early Quaker writers such as William Penn.
Like her religious outlook, her attitude toward slavery was catalyzed by the ideas of Elias Hicks, who denounced the institution vigorously & urged Friends to abstain on principle from using the products of slave labor. From about 1825 until Emancipation, she never knowing used cotton cloth, cane sugar, or any other product of slavery, & she lost no opportunity in public speech & private conversation to forward the “free product” movement. (Her husband, not without considerable inward struggle & financial inconvenience, shifted, about 1830, from the cotton trade, in which he had established himself, to the wool commission business.)
Lucretia Mott soon moved to a more positive abolitionist position. Having become acquainted with William Lloyd Garrison about the time he was starting to publish the Liberator in 1831, she attended the convention which he called in Philadelphia in 1833, to organize a national body, the American Anti-Slavery society. Since it did not at first admit women to membership, she helped, that year, form an auxiliary, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, of which she was long a leading spirit. Later, when the policy of excluding women was dropped, she became an active member of the nation society & served on the executive committee of its Pennsylvania branch. Throughout the stormy years of dissension in the antislavery movement, she clung to the radical party of Garrison, which demanded immediate emancipation. This stand, together with her persistence in cooperation with non-Friends, frequently brought her under the condemnation of her more conservative co-religionists, who supported more moderate measures under purely Quaker auspices.
In 1837, she was one of the organizers of the Anti-Slavery convention of American Women. The following year, on May 15, the convention met in Philadelphia in the newly constructed Pennsylvania Hall. When the sessions were disturbed by an anti-abolitionist mob, it was Mrs. Mott who exhorted the women to remain calm. During the evening of May 17 the building was set afire & burned to the ground. While the hall was burning, the mob stated toward the Motts’ home on North Ninth Street, where the family sat quietly, awaiting the worst; fortunately the crowd was diverted before reaching the destination.
This was not Lucretia Mott’s only opportunity to demonstrate her courage in the face of an angry crown. In March 1840, when she was traveling through Delaware, visiting Friends’ meetings & speaking on slavery, a mob, aroused by her abolitionism, seized her traveling companion, Daniel Neall, & applied a coat of tar & feathers to him. According to her own account, she pleaded with the mob’s leaders to take her instead of Neall, since she was the offender “if offense had been committed”. They declined saying, “You are a woman & we have nothing to say to you”; to which she replied: “I ask no courtesy at your hands on account of my sex” (Cromwell, p. 42).
In 1840 she was one of several American women chosen as delegates to the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London by the American Anti-Slavery Society & by other abolitionist groups. Arriving in England with her husband, she found the convention controlled by the rival American & Foreign Anti-Slavery Society -known to Garrisonians as the “New Organization”- & its opposite number, the British & Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, both opposed to public activity by women. Despite vigorous protests by Wendell Phillips & others, the American women delegates were refused recognition & assigned seats “behind the bar”. Though Lucretia Mott was thus deprived of a voice in the proceedings, she was nevertheless described by a friendly journalist as “the lioness of the Convention” (Liberator, Oct. 23, 1840, p. 170).
The most significant sequel of the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention, was the formal launching, eight years later, of the movement for woman’s rights. Elizabeth Cady Stanton had also been in London in 1840, & the two women, stuck by the irony of a “world’s convention” which had opened by excluding representatives of half the human race, found they had a common concern to promote the rights of womankind. They waited, however, until 1848 to translate their concern into decisive action. On July 19 of that year, in association with Lucretia Mott’s younger sister Martha Coffin Wright, they called a convention in the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, N.Y. Since no woman felt equal to the task of presiding, James Mott took the chair. But Lucretia Mott & Elizabeth Cady Stanton dominated the assembly fro the floor, Mrs. Mott delivering the opening & closing addresses. They pushed through a “Declaration of Sentiments,” phrased in language reminiscent of another famous Declaration; “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” it began, “that all men & women are created equal”. Twelve resolutions claiming specific rights to women were placed before the convention. Only one, a demand for the suffrage, failed to pass unanimously. On this point Lucretia Mott, perhaps because of her Quaker heritage, was less insistent than Mrs. Stanton: she never regarded the right to vote as the paramount issue in the struggle.
Two weeks after Seneca Falls, a 2nd convention was held in the Unitarian Chapel at Rochester, N.Y. From this time on, woman’s rights claimed as much of Lucretia Mott’s attention as any of the other reforms with which she associated herself. In a closely reasoned Discourse of Woman (1850) she attributed the alleged inferiority of women to the repressions under which her sex had always labored -unequal educational opportunities, a lower standard of wages, restricted employment, denial of political rights. She regularly attended the ensuing annual woman’s rights conventions & in 1852 was elected president of the convention at Syracuse.
The growth of her religious liberalism matched the widening scope of her commitment to human freedom. She continued to stress the simple Quaker doctrines of “the sufficiency of the Light within the righteousness without”. Yet the tendency of her thought was clearly in line with contemporary Unitarianism, & her preaching was undoubtedly more powerful than any other influence in carrying the Hicksite Friends toward theological liberalism. She rejected the doctrine of human depravity, found herself in unison with Theodore Parker’s famous sermon on “The Transient & Permanent in Christianity,” & in 1849 frankly confessed that she was “a worshipper after the way called heresy -a believer after the manner which many deem infidel”; still, she insisted, she was “firm in the blessed, the eternal doctrines preached by Jesus & by every child of God from the creation of the world, especially….the doctrine which Jesus most emphatically taught, that the kingdom of God is within man” (A Sermon to the Medical Students, 1849, p. 6).
She often attended the Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends at Longwood, Kennett Square, Pa., a group which combined radical abolitionism with ultraliberal religious ideas, though she never formally joined them, being unwilling to promote another schism in the Society of Friends. But when a group of religious liberals met in Boston on May 30, 1867, to form the Free Religious Association, she was on the platform with Robert Dale Owen, Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, & Ralph Waldo Emerson to address its first session.
For nearly 20 years, the Motts lived & reared their children in a red brick house at 136 North Ninth Street in Philadelphia. In 1850, they moved to 338 Arch Street, a spacious house where they entertained on a simple but generous scale during the Quaker Yearly Meeting & the annual sessions of the reform societies & where they sometimes harbored runaway slaves. Unlike some “strong-minded” female reformers, Mrs. Mott was a conscientious housekeeper who never laid herself open to the charge that she neglected her domestic duties. In 1857, she & her husband, now retired from business, moved to Roadside, a plain, rambling country house on the Old York Road, north of Philadelphia, where Lucretia continued her efficient ministrations as a housewife, sewing carpet rags, cooking Nantucket blackberry pudding, raising vegetables in her kitchen garden.
But the years at Roadside were also filled with constant activity in causes both old & new. After the Thirteenth Amendment had abolished slavery, she could not agree with Garrison that there remained no further work for friends of the Negro. So she pressed for Negro suffrage & threw herself in the work of the Friends Association of Philadelphia for the Aid & Elevation of the Freedmen, which provided economic aid & established elementary schools for Negroes in the South. Higher education for the children of Friends occupied her too, & she busied herself in raising money for the Quaker college established at Swarthmore in 1864. Always a strong believe in the Quaker peace testimony, she regularly attended meetings of the Pennsylvania Peace Society, of which she was vice-president. She seldom missed a woman’s rights or suffrage convention & seldom failed to be called upon for an address. At the 1st convention of the American Equal Rights Association in 1866, she was named president at the insistence of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
During her last 12 years she was without the faithful support of her husband, for James Mott died in early 1868. She herself lived to the age of 87, active to the end, publicly & privately, in good causes. She died at Roadside & was buried beside her husband in the Fair Hill Friends burying ground in Germantown, PA. For more than 50 years she had dedicated herself to emancipation -the emancipation of the Negro from slavery; the emancipation of American women from an inferior status; the emacipation of the human mind from narrowness in religion. Starting from the equalitarian & libertarian principles implicit in the Quaker faith, she had broken through sectarian walls to become not only one of the first but one of the most consistently effective women every to play a major role in the American reform tradition.
This posting based, in part, on information from Notable American Women edited by Edward T James, Janet Wilson James, Paul S Boyer, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1971.