Kelley, Abby (1810–1887)

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Kelley, Abby (1810–1887)

American abolitionist and woman's rights lecturer . Name variations: Abigail Kelley; Abigail Kelley Foster. Born Abigail Kelley in Pelham, Massachusetts, on January 15, 1810; died in Worcester, Massachusetts, on January 14, 1887; daughter and fifth of seven children of Wing Kelley (a farmer) and his second wife Diana(Daniels) Kelley; attended Quaker schools, including several years at the Friends School, Providence, Rhode Island; married Stephen Symonds Foster (also an abolitionist lecturer), in December 1845 (died 1881); children: one daughter, Pauline Wright Foster .

Abby Kelley was born in Pelham, Massachusetts, in 1810, the daughter of Wing Kelley, a Quaker farmer, and his second wife Diana Daniels Kelley . Raised in rural Massachusetts, Abby Kelley was teaching in a Quaker School in Lynn, when she became a follower of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. From 1835 to 1837, as secretary of the Lynn Female Anti-Slavery Society, she was involved in door-to-door canvassing, petition collection, and fundraising. In 1838, she joined Garrison in founding the New England Non-Resistant Society, and also participated in the first and second woman's national antislavery conventions in New York and Philadelphia, where she made her first public speech. Kelley was so well received that abolitionist leaders urged her to continue as a lecturer for the cause, and in 1839, she resigned her teaching job. The decision did not come without a price, for traveling the country speaking out publicly was a precarious career for a woman at the time. Not only did Kelley endure the wrath of those opposing her view, but she was denounced as a fallen woman for even daring to mount a public platform.

She also became the target of controversy within the movement. During the convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1840, when Kelley was appointed to the business committee, it so angered the male delegates that almost half of them, led by Arthur and Lewis Tappan, left to form the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Enduring continuing hardships and personal attacks, Kelley continued lecturing, traveling as far west as Indiana and Michigan. During the 1840s, she found an ally in a fellow lecturer, Stephen Symonds Foster, who was even more radical in his views than she. After a four-year courtship on the road, the couple married in 1845 and continued to travel together as a lecture team until 1861. After the birth of her daughter Pauline in 1847, 37-year-old Kelley began to spend more time at the couple's Worcester farm, which also became a haven for fugitive slaves. She was careful, however, to not let domestic duties end her career, and often left her daughter with her husband or relatives while she was on the road.

Abby Kelley was described as a woman of considerable charm, tall, blue-eyed, and quite attractive in her younger days. Because she was totally committed to reform, quite willing, if necessary, to risk health, reputation, and physical safety for the cause, she could also be dogmatic and humorless. Kelley was attracted to various fads of the day, including novelty diets, homeopathy, phrenology, and spiritualism, although they did not distract her from the job at hand. For many, her extreme views represented an unwelcome challenge to the status quo. Summing up the feelings of many of her opponents was an Oberlin professor, who dismissed her as one of those "women of masculine minds and aggressive tendencies … who cannot be satisfied in domestic life."

During the 1850s, Abby Kelley also began to address temperance and feminist meetings, including the fourth national woman's rights convention in Cleveland in 1853. By now, she had become so zealous and radical in political philosophy that even her sympathizers began to turn away. Late in the decade, convinced that the abolitionists must organize into a third political party so that the Republicans would not win over their supporters, Kelley and her husband broke with Garrison.

After the Civil War, Kelley was slowed by age and ill health, and generally limited her activities to local affairs. On several occasions during the 1870s, she and her husband, following the example of Abby and Julia Smith , refused to pay taxes on their farm, arguing that she, being unable to vote, was taxed without representation. (Each time, friends bought back the farm at auction and returned it to them.) One of Kelley's last speeches was in 1880, at the 30th anniversary of the first national woman's rights convention, in which she denounced the Massachusetts law giving women the franchise in school elections on the grounds that half a vote was worse than none. She died in 1887, several months after attending an abolitionists' reunion organized by Lucy Stone , who, in a later tribute, called her a heroine. Abby Kelley, "for more than thirty years, stood in the thick of the fight for the slaves," she wrote, "and at the same time, she hewed out that path over which women are now walking toward their equal political rights."


"Abby Kelley Foster, Abolitionist," in A Bright Spot in the City—Abby's House. Vol 1, no. 4. April 1996.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1981.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.

suggested reading:

Sterling, Dorothy. Ahead of Her Time: Abby Kelley and the Politics of Anti-Slavery. NY: W.W. Norton, 1991.


The Foster-Kelley Family Papers are located at the American Antiquarian Society and the Worcester Historical Society, both at Worcester, Massachusetts.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts