One of the First American Feminists
Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton met at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where the two discussed the need for a convention about women’s rights. Mott and Stanton then became the primary organizers of the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York in July 1848 – the first women’s rights meeting ever held in the United States.
Childhood and Early Years
Lucretia Coffin was born on January 3, 1793, to Quaker parents in the seaport town of Nantucket, Massachusetts. She was the second child of seven by Thomas Coffin and Anna Folger Coffin. In 1804, the Coffins moved to Boston, where Thomas was an international trader with warehouses and wharves. He bought a new brick house on Round Lane for $5600.
When she was 13, the Coffins sent Lucretia to the Nine Partners Quaker Boarding School in Dutchess County, New York, where she excelled. After graduating in 1808 she served as an assistant teacher at Nine Partners until 1810, without salary other than room and board and free tuition for her sister Eliza. Her interest in women’s rights began when she discovered that male teachers at the school were paid three times as much as the female staff.
There she met James Mott, a paid teacher at Nine Partners, son of Adam and Anne Mott. He was about 20 and was as reserved and quiet as Lucretia was vivacious and talkative. He was the tallest boy at the school and Lucretia was fairly short.
Thomas Coffin had sold his business in Boston and entered the cut nail manufacturing business with a relative at French Creek near Philadelphia. During that time he moved the family from Boston to Philadelphia, a city that was to be Lucretia’s home for the rest of her life.
Home and Family
James Mott also moved from New York to Philadelphia, perhaps to be near Lucretia, and was given a position in Thomas Coffin’s firm as a commission merchant. James and Lucretia were given parental consent to marry in the early spring of 1811. They were married at Pine Street Meeting House in Philadelphia on April 10, 1811. Between 1812 and 1828 Mott bore six children, five of whom lived to adulthood.
Following the War of 1812, the Coffins and Motts shared in the economic depression that followed the war and lived in a state of financial instability for several years. This caused Thomas to move temporarily to Ohio after his cut-nail business was sold to pay debts.
James and Lucretia went to New York where they helped Richard Mott at his cotton mill at Mamaroneck. This was not profitable so James and Lucretia moved to New York city where he worked as a bank clerk. Finally they moved back to Philadelphia. There in March 1817, Lucretia, now the mother of two small children, got a job as teacher at the Select School for girls. The birth of her third child, Maria, in 1818 brought her teaching career to a close.
Lucretia’s father died in 1815 of typhus and Anne Coffin (Lucretia’s mother) opened a store in Philadelphia which became successful. By 1824 she had given this up and was running a boarding house. James Mott engaged in cotton and wool wholesale trade (he later focused only on wool trading as a protest against the slavery-dependent cotton industry in the South). During the 1820s, Mott’s business prospered, allowing them to move into a home of their own.
Throughout their long marriage James Mott encouraged his wife in her many activities outside the home. The Quaker tradition enabled women to take public positions on a variety of social problems. She began to speak at Quaker meetings in 1818, and in 1821 she was recognized as a Quaker minister.
During the 1820s a rift formed between the stricter, more conservative Quakers and the tolerant, less orthodox followers of Elias Hicks (known as the Hicksites). In 1827 James and Lucretia followed the Hicksite branch which espoused free interpretation of the Bible and reliance on inward, as opposed to historic Christian, guidance.
As her children grew, Lucretia had more time to read and study the Bible, serious religious works and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, which she kept on the center table of her home for 40 years and could recite passages from memory. During the Quaker schism of 1827 the Motts united with the Hicksite faction, meeting temporarily at Carpenter’s Hall.
Like many Quakers, the Motts considered slavery an evil to be opposed. They refused to use cotton cloth, cane sugar and other slavery-produced goods. Lucretia began to speak publicly for the abolition cause, often traveling from her home in Philadelphia. Her sermons combined anti-slavery themes with broad calls for moral reform.
Lucretia first entertained William Lloyd Garrison at her home in 1830, during which he enlisted the Motts in the efforts to emancipate the slaves. A lifelong friendship stemmed from their initial meeting. Mott and her husband became deeply involved in the national abolitionist circle.
In December 1833, Garrison called a meeting to expand the New England Anti-Slavery Society. James Mott was a delegate at the Convention, but it was Lucretia who made a lasting impression on attendees. She tested the language of the Constitution and bolstered support when many delegates were precarious.
Days after the conclusion of the Convention, at the urging of other delegates, Mott founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, which included both European American and African American members. Among other early members were Sarah Pugh, Mary Grew, Esther Moore, Sydney Ann Lewis and Lydia White.
Black women also joined including Sarah Mapps Douglass, Hattie Purvis, the Forten sisters and Lucretia’s daughters Anna Mott Hopper and Maria Mott Davis. The extensive participation of Blacks tightly bound the actions of the Society to the Philadelphia Black community. Lucretia often preached at Black parishes.
Lucretia Mott was quickly becoming the most widely known female abolitionist in America. Amidst social persecution by abolition opponents, Mott continued her work. She was praised for her ability to maintain her household while contributing to the cause. In the words of one editor, “She is proof that it is possible for a woman to widen her sphere without deserting it.”
Women’s political participation threatened social norms. Many involved in the abolitionist movement opposed public activities by women, which were infrequent in those years. Other people opposed women who preached to mixed crowds of men and women, whom they called promiscuous. None of this stopped Mott. She was one of the leaders in the Anti-Slavery Coalitions for American Women’s assembly held in New York on May 9-12, 1837.
Mob violence against abolitionists was common in Boston, New York and Philadelphia beginning in 1834. In 1838 funds were raised to build Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia to be the local abolitionist headquarters. This building was set on fire by a mob soon after its construction while a meeting was being held (Lucretia a speaker) and burned to the ground.
The rioters particularly objected to two things that were fairly novel in these meetings: mixing of the races on terms of equality and the prominence of women in both speaking at and running the meeting. The abolitionist movement was in some ways the beginning of the women’s rights movement in America.
In September 1839 Lucretia was a founding member of the Non-Resistant Society which was made up of abolitionists pledging not to return violence with violence, a concept contributed by William Lloyd Garrison. This was one of the first political organizations to accept men and women on equal terms in America.
Lucretia Mott was a delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention held June 12-17, 1840, in London. However, before the conference began the men voted to exclude women from participating. Lucretia and the other women delegates were refused seats, despite the protests of American men attending the convention. Women delegates were required to sit in a segregated area out of sight of the men. William Lloyd Garrison and several other men chose to sit with the excluded women.
During that meeting Lucretia met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, wife of American delegate Henry Stanton, who were on their honeymoon. Stanton was incensed that the women were barred from participation, and she and Lucretia quickly became friends.
Encouraged by active debates she attended in England and Scotland, Lucretia returned with new energy for the cause in the United States. She continued an active lecture schedule, with destinations including the major Northern cities of New York and Boston. For several weeks she traveled to slave-owning states, and gave speeches in Baltimore and Virginia.
She met with slave owners to discuss the morality of slavery. In the District of Columbia, Mott timed her lecture to coincide with the return of Congress from Christmas recess; more than 40 Congressmen attended. She had a personal audience with President John Tyler who, impressed with her speech said, “I would like to hand Mr. Calhoun [a senator and abolition opponent] over to you.”
In 1844 Anne Coffin died in Lucretia’s home of influenza. During that same time Lucretia was also stricken with serious health problems: chronic dyspepsia, encephalitis and the same influenza that killed her mother; her weight dropped to 92 pounds. For the next two years she was less active in public life.
A steady stream of callers appeared at their home, including Sojourner Truth, Sarah Douglass, Abby Kimber and Sarah Pugh as well as numerous relatives and friends. Out of town visitors included William Lloyd Garrison, Samuel May, John Quincy Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Dickens.
During the 1840s Lucretia was a founder of the Association for the Relief and Employment of Poor Women, a self-help group which made and sold garments, carpets and quilts. James Mott was able to retire from business, financially secure. Lucretia was now regarded as one of the leading radical reformers in America.
In her first major speech at the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York in 1848, Lucretia called for the immediate abolition of slavery. Hicksite Friends like Lucretia were attacked frequently by the Orthodox Friends over their beliefs and often felt called upon to defend them. She was a frequent speaker at local and yearly meetings.
During the 1850s debate in antislavery circles now centered on maintaining the Union of north and south versus the evils of slavery. Lucretia attempted to prevent the fragmenting of the movement by this tension. The Motts assisted runaway slaves who fled from Maryland and Delaware into Philadelphia throughout the 1850s. Their home at 338 Arch Street was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Women’s Rights Activities
Mott’s commitment to freeing blacks deepened her awareness of the constraints society placed on women. Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright (Lucretia’s sister) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were the main organizers of the first Women’s Rights Convention, which was held July 19-20, 1848, at Seneca Falls, New York – Stanton’s hometown. This was the first public women’s rights meeting in the United States.
James Mott chaired this convention and Lucretia gave the opening address. Stanton read the Declaration of Sentiments which is based on the Declaration of Independence. Resolutions listed on the document included efforts to secure better education, demolish the barriers to women in industry, the clergy and the professions of law and medicine, nullify laws restricting women’s property rights and support of woman’s suffrage. All of the resolutions in the declaration except the one demanding the vote passed unanimously.
Lucretia Mott also gave the closing remarks at the convention. She had been one of those reluctant to propose the right to vote for women and was also reluctant to have a woman as head of the organization, probably for practical reasons as she certainly believed women should vote. Since Lucretia was the best known of the early women’s rights advocates she now became the whipping-girl of editorialists who opposed her.
In 1850, James and Lucretia Mott were involved in the founding of the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, the first medical school in the world to provide medical education exclusively for women. In 1850, Lucretia wrote Discourse on Woman, a book about restrictions on women in the United States, and became more widely known as a result.
In 1857, Lucretia and her family left Philadelphia and moved to Roadside in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, near her daughter and son-in-law. A primary reason for moving was Lucretia’s poor health. She still went to Philadelphia to attend meetings and she spent a lot of time reading. On April 10, 1861 – Lucretia and James celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary the day before the fall of Fort Sumter.
Lucretia Mott upheld her pacifist Quaker beliefs during the Civil War, but many Quakers chose to fight, including members of her own family. Her son in law’s near-by property was leased by the Union Army as a training ground for African American soldiers; it was called Camp William Penn. Lucretia assisted them in their preparations until they left to fight in the South.
During the war, she raised money and clothes for those freed from slavery. After President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was passed in 1863, abolitionists were seen as heroes, and Lucretia was universally admired. The 13th amendment to the Constitution in 1865 officially freed the slaves, and she began to advocate giving Black Americans the right to vote.
After the Civil War, Lucretia joined with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone to establish the American Equal Rights Association. In 1866 she attended the Equal Rights Convention in New York where Stanton was elected its first President but declined so that Lucretia could be President. After her term was over in 1870, the organization split in two and Lucretia was unable to reunite them – on one side was Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and on the other was Lucy Stone, Mary Livermore and Julia Ward Howe.
James Mott died on April 26, 1868, while visiting his daughter Martha in Brooklyn. Despite her grief over the loss of her greatest supporter, Lucretia carried on the struggle for equal rights for all people. She joined the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), formed in 1869.
On the centennial of American independence, leaders of the NWSA renewed their call for women’s equality with their 1876 Declaration and Protest of the Women of the United States. The document called for impeachment of United States leaders on the grounds that they taxed women without representation and denied women trial by a jury of her peers.
Lucretia continued to work for voting rights for African Americans and equal rights for women, giving at least 40 speeches between 1870 and 1880. In July 1876 she presided at the National Woman Suffrage Association in Philadelphia. The peace movement was also a prime concern during her last ten years. In 1878 Lucretia delivered her last public address in Rochester, New York, where women’s rights advocates celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention. Her last public appearance was in April 1880 at the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.
Lucretia Coffin Mott died of pneumonia on November 11, 1880, at her home in Roadside at age 87. She was buried in the Quaker Fairhill Burial Ground in North Philadelphia.
Image: Memorial of Women’s Rights Leaders
This portrait monument features portrait busts of the leaders of the woman suffrage movement (left to right): Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott. The uncarved portion behind the busts represents all past, present and future women leaders. It was presented to Congress by the National Woman’s Party as a gift to the nation on February, 15, 1921, and placed in the Rotunda Hall of the United States Capitol. After one day the statue was moved to the basement. Finally, after 76 years, the monument was returned to Rotunda Hall over Mother’s Day weekend, May 10-12, 1997.
Though women did not win the right to vote until 1920, forty years after Lucretia Mott’s death, she lived to see fulfillment of several demands set forth in the Declaration of Sentiments. By 1880, for example, most states granted a woman the right to hold property independent of her husband and several state and private colleges admitted women, including co-ed Swarthmore College, which Lucretia Mott helped to establish.