Lucretia Mott's Reform Networks, Introduction

How Did Lucretia Mott's Activism between 1840 and 1860 Combine her Commitments to Antislavery and Women's Rights?


Lucretia Mott
Courtesy of Library of Congress
American Memory

Original Editorial Project
by Carol Faulkner and Beverly Wilson Palmer
Lucretia Coffin Mott Correspondence Project
Pomona College
May 1999

As a Quaker minister, peace and temperance advocate, and an anti-slavery activist, Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) envisioned women’s rights as part of a broader reform of American society. The letters in this document collection are part of a larger project, The Selected Letters of Lucretia Coffin Mott, edited by Beverly Wilson Palmer, Holly Byers Ochoa, and Carol Faulkner, to be published by the University of Illinois Press. As one of the founders of the women’s rights movement in the United States, she is often overshadowed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906). These fifteen letters, encompassing the period between 1840 and 1860, demonstrate that the connections Mott made between religion, anti-slavery, and other reforms had a significant impact on the women’s rights movement. They also illuminate the international dimensions of the women’s rights and anti-slavery causes which shaped Mott’s career and her views on women, religion, and public activism.

Historians have traditionally dated the beginning of the women’s rights movement to the 1840 London World Anti-Slavery Convention, where Mott and Stanton first formulated the idea for a women’s rights convention.[1] But the connections between anti-slavery and women’s rights flourished even before this meeting. Mott attended the founding meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) in 1833, Angelina Grimké began working as a lecturer for the AASS in 1836, and, in 1839, the AASS permanently split, in part because of the election of a woman, Abby Kelley Foster, to the business committee.[2] Mott’s interest in women’s rights also predated her involvement in the anti-slavery movement, as she committed herself to women’s emancipation early on in her public career as a Quaker minister and reformer.

Lucretia Coffin was born on Nantucket and often traced her own independent character to the forced independence of Nantucket women, whose male relatives were at sea for a good part of every year, leaving the women to tend to business. She attended Nine Partners Boarding School, a Quaker School in upstate New York, where she became a teacher and met her husband, fellow teacher James Mott (1788-1868). In a brief autobiographical sketch, Mott wrote that her earliest recognition of the inequalities between men and women was at Nine Partners, where the male teachers were paid more than the women. But her relationship with her husband was one of equals. In an 1869 letter to Josephine Butler (1828-1906), a British reformer, Mott described the Quaker philosophy of marriage, of which her own was an excellent example: "There is no assumed authority or admitted inferiority; no promise of obedience. Their independence is equal, their dependence mutual, and their obligations reciprocal." After their marriage in 1811, the Motts moved to Philadelphia, where James became a merchant.[3]

At Nine Partners, the Motts had also become acquainted with Elias Hicks (1748-1830), of Long Island, whose reforms in the Society of Friends had a profound impact on Mott’s life. In 1821, Mott became a minister in the Society of Friends. Mott was a powerful extemporaneous preacher and her controversial preachings challenged injustice and hierarchy in the Quaker religion.[4] Hicks’s unorthodox ministry, which was unitarian in nature, thus strongly appealed to her. Hicks and Mott both preached a return to the doctrine of inner light, or individual conscience, which frightened mainstream Quakers, who were more reliant on the Bible as an authority. These differences caused a split between the "Hicksite" and "Orthodox" Quakers in 1828.[5] Mott and her husband went with the Hicksites, and Mott’s prominence as a Quaker minister grew. Throughout her career Mott preached against sectarianism, religious hierarchy, and a strict adherence to church doctrines. Mott’s critique of organized religion grew in part from the limitations religions often placed on women. As a Quaker minister, Mott assumed a position of leadership which women of other religions were denied. Mott rejected the argument that the Bible contained "high apostolic authority" against women "stepping forth to advocate what is right." Instead, she argued that there was "far more plentiful testimony to the rightfulness of woman’s directly laboring for the gospel."[6]

Mott’s religious beliefs also influenced her interest in the principles of peace and non-resistance. She was committed to William Lloyd Garrison’s branch of the anti-slavery movement, which advocated moral suasion, rather than political or violent means, to end slavery. She was a member of the Non-Resistance Society, formed in 1838, and in her preaching emphasized the power of God to transform American society:  "All who are believers in the truth of God, and in the righteousness of God, must come to understand, that this alone can set us free."[7] Mott also maintained an interest in temperance, and frequently gave temperance lectures, as did Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (see documents 1 and 3). The connection between the temperance movement and the women’s rights movement was strong, as activists used their concerns about drunkenness to advocate a change in marriage law, which left married women propertyless and legally powerless. At the 1853 World’s Temperance Convention in New York City, Mott emphasized that the "great reformatory movements" of peace, temperance, liberty, and woman’s rights were "in accordance with each other."[8]

Mott’s association with American and British Quakers and anti-slavery reformers sustained her commitment to women’s rights as one component of broad social reform. When in London in 1840, Lucretia and James Mott were befriended by open-minded British Quakers and abolitionists, even as they were rejected by others. The Motts made lasting friendships with Elizabeth Pease (later Nichols) (1807-97), a British Quaker, and Richard (1805-72) and Hannah (1809-62) Webb, Irish Quakers, all of whom had attended the misnamed World Convention, where they showed support for the American women delegates whom the British abolitionists excluded (see documents 1, 2, and 4).[9] Mott corresponded regularly with these friends, exchanging information regarding reforms on both sides of the Atlantic (see documents 2, 3, and 4).

Just as Mott’s experience at the London Anti-Slavery Convention strengthened her commitment to women’s rights, so did further divisions in the Society of Friends. During the 1840s, Quaker meetings in New York, Indiana, and elsewhere split over the participation of Quakers in the organized anti-slavery movement and the position of women within the Society. New meetings called Congregational, Progressive, or Anti-Slavery Friends formed all over the country and Mott took an active interest in the "seceders" and encouraged their commitment to religious liberty (see documents 3, 4, 5, and 10). One society of Progressive Friends met at Waterloo, near Seneca Falls, N.Y., in October 1848, several months after the first women’s rights convention. Many of the Quakers who formed the Waterloo Friends attended the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention.[10]

In contemporary accounts of the Seneca Falls convention, Mott was frequently described as the "moving spirit" of the proceedings. Though Stanton characterized the women at Seneca Falls as naive when she wrote they "were quite innocent of the herculean labors they proposed," Mott was an experienced and well-known speaker and activist; her presence gave the convention more authority than it otherwise would have had.[11] Mott continued to participate in women’s rights conventions, which were held regularly until the Civil War (see documents 8-15). She attended the convention at Rochester, which met shortly after the Seneca Falls convention, and the first national women’s rights convention at Worcester, Mass., in 1850. When she could not attend, as was the case with the Salem, Ohio, women’s rights convention in 1850 (see document 7), she sent letters of support.

Mott’s best known work on women’s rights was her "Discourse on Woman," delivered on 17 December 1849 in Philadelphia, and subsequently printed and widely circulated. This lecture demonstrates that Mott’s feminism, like her involvement in other reform movements, was strongly influenced by her religion, rather than a legal or political conception of rights. In the "Discourse," Mott argued for the equality of woman and man before God. She believed that any inequalities that currently existed between the sexes were the result of society’s enforcement of legal, religious, and social restrictions on women. The equality of men and women extended to their right to engage in reform, she argued: "Women as well as men are interested in these works of justice and mercy . . . . The blessing to the merciful, to the peacemaker is equal to man and to woman." To further women’s involvement in reform, Mott encouraged women "to [claim] as a right" "the removal of all the hindrances to her elevation."[12]

Mott’s experience in the anti-slavery movement and the Society of Friends gave her a particular perspective on the women’s rights movement, one which she described to Lucy Stone in 1852 (see document 9). She wrote Stone that she did not believe that a national women’s rights organization was a good idea and that regional conventions achieved the same end and preserved "Congregational independence." Mott feared the "dissolution" that had affected both Quakers and abolitionists. Mott also informed Stone that she did not wish to be president of the upcoming Syracuse convention. Though Mott claimed presiding was "out of my sphere," the frequency with which she was called upon to take a leading role at women’s rights conventions revealed her talent for the position. But Mott’s experiences in the anti-slavery movement, and her personal ties to many reformers, led her to play at times the role of peacemaker in the factional disputes that divided anti-slavery and later the women’s rights movement. Although she attempted to keep the various groups of reformers "in accordance," her task was often a frustrating one.

Mott often found it difficult to convince others that anti-slavery, temperance, peace, religious liberalism, and women’s rights were related rather than antagonistic reforms, but her own career demonstrates that these parallel reforms operated conjointly in the antebellum period. Mott divided her time preaching at Quaker meetings, attending anti-slavery and women’s rights conventions, and speaking whenever possible on the other reforms that were close to her heart.[13] The following letters reveal the extent of Mott’s leadership in antebellum social and religious reform movements.

These letters also raise other questions about Mott’s career: How did Lucretia Mott balance her family life and her public activism? In what ways did the position of white women in American society compare to the position of slaves? In what ways were they not comparable? How did Mott’s class and religious background make her public activism more socially acceptable than it might have been for other women? What social networks sustained Mott’s commitment to reform?