Mott, Lucretia (1793–1880)
Mott, Lucretia (1793–1880)
American Quaker minister, abolitionist, and pioneer activist who was one of the first to advocate equal rights for women. Name variations: Lucretia Coffin Mott. Born Lucretia Coffin on January 3, 1793, on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts; died on November 11, 1880, at Roadside, Pennsylvania; daughter of Thomas Coffin Jr. (a sea captain and merchant), and Anna (Folger) Coffin; sister of Martha Coffin Wright (1806–1875); attended private Quaker schools, and one year of public school; secondary education at Nine Partners, a Quaker boarding school in Dutchess County, New York; married James Mott, Jr., on April 10, 1811; children: Anna Mott; Thomas Mott (d. 1817); Maria Mott ; Thomas Coffin Mott; Elizabeth Mott (d. 1865); Martha Mott.
Appointed assistant teacher (1808); officially recognized as Quaker minister (1821); became a "Hicksite" (1827); organized female anti-slavery society in Philadelphia (1833); helped organize First Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women (1837); appointed delegate to World Anti-Slavery Convention in London (1840); helped organize first Woman's Rights Convention, Seneca Falls, New York (1848); served as president of American Equal Rights Association (1866–68); was president of Pennsylvania Peace Society (1870–80).
On Saturday, January 2, 1943, while America was in the midst of the Second World War, a celebration was held at the U.S. Capitol, organized not to rejoice over an important military victory but to honor the memory of Lucretia Mott on the weekend marking the 150th anniversary of her birth. Bands played and vocalists performed, and members of Congress joined with representatives of women's groups from around the world in offering praise for the life work of the abolitionist and Quaker minister who had been a champion of women's rights. Anna Kelton Wiley of the National Woman's Party, crediting Mott as the inspiration behind the 19th century woman's movement, described her as "A woman of saintly character and wide generosity to all suffering mankind, [yet she was] spoken of by the bigoted, ignorant and prejudiced of her time as an infidel, a heretic, and a disturber of the peace."
Lucretia Coffin Mott was born on Nantucket, an island about 30 miles south of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in 1793, when whaling was the island's prime industry. Her father Thomas Coffin, Jr., was the captain of a Nantucket whaling ship and a descendant of Quakers who had settled on the island to avoid religious persecution in the 17th century. Her mother Anna Folger Coffin was also descended from the island's early Quakers, including Peter Folger, the grandfather of Benjamin Franklin.
Mott was the second child and second daughter, but since her older sister suffered from an undisclosed handicap—possibly mental—she was given the responsibilities of eldest daughter as the family increased to a total of seven children. As captain of a whaling vessel, Thomas Coffin was away from home for long periods of time, and left his wife with power of attorney, in charge of the household and its economy. Although Anna Coffin's responsibilities were greater than those held by many women of the era, the shipping and whaling culture of Nantucket resulted in more than the usual trust being placed in the hands of its women. The role models she saw in her mother and other local women helped to build Mott's confidence in her own abilities.
In the early years of Mott's life, her family was financially comfortable. But around 1802, while sailing off the west coast of South America, Thomas Coffin was involved in a dispute with some Spaniards and was forced to leave his ship, The Trial, at Valparaiso. Although he eventually found passage home, arriving after an absence of almost a year, the incident put an end to his whaling career. In 1804, the family moved to Boston, where Thomas prospered as a merchant, and within two years he bought a comfortable brick home for his family. Nantucket remained dear to Mott's heart, and she returned there many times, introducing her children and grandchildren to the home of her youth.
On Nantucket, Lucretia had attended a Quaker-run school. In Boston, the Coffin children went first to a private school, which Thomas found snobbish and undemocratic, and later to public schools. When Lucretia was 13, she enrolled in Nine Partners Boarding School, a Quaker academy near present-day Poughkeepsie, New York, where boys and girls lived in separate quarters and attended separate classes. She excelled at her studies, and after two years was made an assistant teacher and offered a permanent staff position. When she joined several other teachers sharing lessons in French, she became better acquainted with a fellow staff member, James Mott, Jr., the grandson of the school superintendent. At about this time, Lucretia was shocked to learn the extent of the inequities in the salaries of male and female staff members when she found that James' income was significantly higher than that of the more experienced assistant principal, Deborah Rogers .
In 1809, Thomas Coffin embarked on a new business venture in the cut-nail industry, and moved his family to Philadelphia, then the nation's largest city. Having completed her schooling, Lucretia moved with the family, and James Mott, Jr., who had become her suitor, soon gave up teaching to accept a position in Thomas Coffin's firm. The couple were married in a Meeting of Friends on April 10, 1811, and spent the next few months in the home of Lucretia's parents before settling into a modest home of their own.
In the economic depression that followed the War of 1812, both the Coffin and Mott households were vulnerable to financial instability. The cut-nail business was a failure; James Mott was left without a job, and Thomas was left with a loan on which a friend had defaulted. The family was in dire financial stress and faced greater difficulties after Thomas contracted typhus fever and died in 1815, leaving his wife and children to deal with the creditors.
If our principles are right, why should we be cowards?
The Motts briefly tried shopkeeping, but were forced to sell that business at a loss. James traveled to New York to work as a bank clerk, but soon returned to Philadelphia where he eventually set up a wholesale business in foreign and domestic staples. Lucretia was by then the mother of a daughter and a son, and in 1817 she began teaching at a Friends' school for girls to help maintain the family's income. That year both Lucretia and her son Thomas became ill with high fevers, and Thomas died. The following year, a third child, Anna Mott , was born, bringing an end to Lucretia's brief return to teaching.
The loss of her son caused Lucretia tremendous emotional pain, and she sought relief through religious readings and reflection. One day in a Friends' Meeting, she was moved to express herself with a simple offering of prayer, and the sympathetic encouragement she received led her to speak often. By 1821, she was officially recognized as a Quaker minister. This was an unusual honor for a woman as young as Lucretia, but she was gifted with a pleasant, clear speaking voice and the ability to present her thoughts with sincerity, using logical, simple language. Before long, however, she became a controversial figure, taking advantage of her position to challenge Quaker rules of discipline she believed to be unfair. One of the first rules against which she spoke was that against marriage to those outside of the religion. The rule required members of the Society of Friends who married non-Friends to be disowned, and even subjected parents of the errant newlywed to disownment for allowing the marriage.
Mott's family continued to grow. Like most women of her time, she altered and mended clothes to keep expenses low, but she also found time to read. Never one to doubt the abilities of her gender, she was particularly impressed by Mary Wollstonecraft 's Vindication of the Rights of Woman, first published in 1792, and fully agreed with the ideas of this early advocate for women's rights.
One burning issue then growing increasingly controversial was slavery. Throughout her life, Mott had opposed the institution of slavery, and during the 1820s it bothered her conscience that her husband, by then moderately successful as a wholesale merchant, was profiting over the handling of cotton. James was a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, but the pressure of supporting his family seemed to leave him with no choice but to continue doing business with the slave-holding cotton growers of the South. By 1830, Mott had discontinued use of any products associated with slavery, and her husband yielded to his own conscience as well as to pressure from his wife, ceasing all dealings in cotton in favor of wool.
In the 1820s, issues were also tearing at the Society of Friends. Many members, including Mott, were disturbed by the growing power of the wealthy Philadelphia Quaker elders. The problem came to a climax when the elders decided to discipline an aged Quaker minister, Elias Hicks, for preaching heresy. Hicks had a large following as a preacher of fiery sermons that criticized both slavery and the new evangelicalism growing fashionable among some Friends, whom he believed were losing the true spirit of the religion. In 1827, the Society of Friends split over the controversy between the elders and Hicks. The Motts took Hicks' side, joining the group referred to as "Hicksites," and were forced to leave Lucretia's beloved Twelfth Street Meeting. Their choice also led to feuds within her own family.
The new Hicksite branch of Friends was eager for Mott's ministering talents, but her role as a mother kept her in the Philadelphia area. The birth of Martha Mott , the last of her six children, at the height of the controversy in 1828, allowed Lucretia to avoid active participation in the debate over the Hicksite-orthodox schism. A few years later, however, she began to journey to outlying areas of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where the Quaker conflict was especially fierce, to speak strongly for the Hicksite camp. In the 1830s, she served for five years as a clerk to the Women's Yearly Meeting, was treasurer for two years, and participated in a variety of the society's activities.
In 1830, the Motts met William Lloyd Garrison, an abolitionist who believed in the immediate emancipation of the slaves. This stand was in conflict with the ideas of the gradualists, who believed that the abolition of slavery should be dealt with slowly. Garrison also disagreed with the Colonization Society, which proposed transporting blacks back to Africa and compensating slaveholders for the loss of their "property." Garrison appealed to the Motts for assistance in spreading his militant message in favor of speedy emancipation. The couple offered their home for meetings and arranged for Garrison to speak. Mott also took the then-radical step of inviting both men and women to participate in the gatherings.
In December 1833, Mott organized a female anti-slavery society in Philadelphia, one of the first women's political groups in the country. At its first meeting neither Mott nor any other woman felt capable of leading the group, and a man was asked to serve as chair. By the second meeting, however, the women had gained enough confidence to proceed on their own, with Mott taking a leading role. Most in the group were Quakers, but there were some Presbyterians and Unitarians, and several middleclass black women, a fact that the majority of Philadelphians found shocking. The membership grew rapidly to about 60 women.
By the mid-1830s, opposition to the antislavery movement, in particular those favoring immediate emancipation, was growing violent, as those sympathetic toward slavery feared the gains being made by the abolitionists. In several Northern states, including Pennsylvania, mobs destroyed businesses and homes of both blacks and abolitionists, and during a visit to Delaware Mott had stones thrown at her carriage. The Society of Friends tried to bar discussions of slavery from their meetings for fear of the discord it aroused, but Mott insisted on speaking on the subject as she traveled to Meetings as far away as Connecticut.
In 1837, with the help of Garrison supporter Maria Chapman, Lucretia organized the First Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, in New York City, followed by a second convention in Philadelphia the following year. Because officials were reluctant to rent meeting halls to abolitionists for fear of the property being destroyed, Lucretia and her husband led a fund-raising campaign for the building of Philadelphia Hall, which was completed in time for the 1838 convention. The Motts routinely entertained abolitionists, and their own family had expanded to include sons-in-law and grandchildren
by 1837, when they purchased a spacious home with a dining room that could seat 50. Lucretia still did not forget the less fortunate members of society, however, and beggars knew they could always find food at her door. In the 1840s, she would join other Philadelphia women in founding the Association for the Relief and Employment of Poor Women.
During the Philadelphia convention rumors abounded regarding the abolitionists' intentions. The new idea of "woman's rights," promoted by many, added to the ferment surrounding the issue of emancipation, and the public came to see the abolitionists as radicals intent upon destroying society's institutions. Workers had visions of losing their jobs to blacks, and many people worried about the destruction of the family unit if women were granted equality, as well as the upheaval that might result from interracial marriages. Mobs gathered outside the convention hall, threatening the proceedings, and following the fourth day of the convention the mob burst open the locked doors and set the hall on fire, burning it to the ground. When the rioters appeared set on finding new targets, a quick-thinking friend saved the Motts' home by yelling out, "On to the Motts!" and pointing in the wrong direction.
Despite the mob's terrifying actions, the abolitionist women did not falter in the fight for their cause. The final session of the convention was held in a schoolhouse. But the determination of women to speak out against slavery was increasing tensions among the abolitionists over the "woman question." In 1840, the American Anti-Slavery Society split into two factions, largely over the issue of the role of women within the organization.
In the summer of 1840, Lucretia and James Mott were on their way to London as delegates from Pennsylvania to a World Anti-Slavery Convention when the American Anti-Slavery Society they represented suffered a permanent split. Those remaining with William Lloyd Garrison, a supporter of women's rights, became known as the Old Organization, and the splinter group became the New Organization. Mott became the Old Organization's delegate to the national committee and a member of the executive committee, which was recognition of her role as America's leading female abolitionist.
In London, a debate soon ensued over whether women should be allowed to sit among the convention delegates. Despite some support among American leaders and two Englishmen who disagreed with their fellow countrymen, an overwhelming majority voted to exclude the female delegates from the convention proceedings. For Mott, a second serious disappointment occurred when she was treated rudely on behalf of British Quakers as a result of her alliance with the Hicksites. British Quakers had sided with the orthodox Friends during the time of the schism, and continued to view Hicks' supporters as heretics. Nevertheless, Mott's time in Britain was worthwhile. Seated quietly in the galleries during the convention, she made a number of friends, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton , the young bride of Henry Stanton, a delegate from the New Organization. In the days that followed, the two women spent hours discussing the injustice of workers devoted to the cause of abolition being denied participation in the deliberations simply because they were women. The action they felt moved to take to promote women's rights began a process that would lead to the 1848 Woman's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York.
During the next several years, Mott's struggle with the Society of Friends over her anti-slavery activities deepened. The elders, angered by her occasional sermons in Unitarian churches, questioned whether her theology was not more Unitarian than Quaker. Although her adversaries did not have sufficient grounds to disown her, they made her ministry difficult by turning her away from meetings or ordering her not to speak. Many were disturbed by her reliance on a God-given "inner sense" for guidance rather than on dogma. When she upheld the belief (shared with early Quakers), that every day should be equally a day of worship, and a special day of Sabbath should be eliminated, she was charged with heresy both inside and outside the Society of Friends.
In the summer of 1848, Mott joined Elizabeth Cady Stanton and three other women at a tea party at Waterloo, New York, where they drafted a call for a woman's rights convention to be held at nearby Seneca Falls on July 19 and 20, 1848. Using the Declaration of Independence as a model, they drew up a "Declaration of Sentiments," adapting and paraphrasing the original document to express their grievances. James Mott was chosen to preside over the convention, Lucretia gave the opening address, and Stanton and several other women spoke. Despite her conviction that women and men should have equal status, Mott was shocked when Stanton submitted a resolution calling for women to be granted the right to vote, although she was soon persuaded of the rightness of the step.
Now in her mid-50s, Mott began devoting much of her energy to women's rights. Since the time she had attended Nine Partners, she had wanted to get equal pay for female teachers. She also advocated improved education for women, and their admission into the professions of science and medicine. She called for the repeal of laws giving men control over their wives' personal property, and she championed women's right to vote. She was often heckled by men in the audience when she spoke on these issues, and her speeches were often ridiculed in newspapers, but she persevered. Mott believed that once the women's rights movement got underway she would be able to devote more time to the antislavery movement. But over the next 30 years she was continuously called upon for leadership, by Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone and others in the women's rights movement. Meanwhile, the Motts' home was occasionally a refuge for escaped slaves, and she remained active in the American Anti-Slavery Society.
In 1857, the Motts moved to Roadside, a large country house north of Philadelphia, to lessen some of the demands on Lucretia as a speaker. Despite advancing age and physical weakness, she continued to entertain family and friends. In 1859, when John Brown led a raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry that was meant to incite a slave uprising, Mott did not see Brown as the hero he became for many abolitionists, but she felt sympathy for his wife, Mary Anne Brown , who was given shelter at Roadside throughout the period of John Brown's trial and execution.
Although Mott deplored war, after the Civil War began she believed it should be fought until slavery was ended. She was also a supporter of conscientious objectors, both Quaker and non-Quaker, and in her compassion for blacks she overcame her disdain for the military. When Camp William Penn became a military training center for enlisted blacks, she baked pastries, sponsored entertainments, and acted as a minister to the black soldiers and their wives.
Following the war, in May 1866 Mott was named president of the newly formed American Equal Rights Association. When she presided over the organization again in 1867, the group was divided over the issue of the 14th Amendment. In granting blacks the right to vote, the amendment specified males as the legal voters, and feminists believed the amendment should be opposed unless the word male was eliminated. Others felt that it was "the blacks' hour," and that they needed the vote to assure they would not be returned to slavery; Lucretia sided with the feminists.
Mott was greatly grieved by the loss of her daughter, Elizabeth Mott , who died of cancer in 1865, and by the loss of her husband, who succumbed to pneumonia in 1868. Despite her own frail condition, in May 1868 she again presided over the American Equal Rights Association's annual meeting. Though she continued working for social reforms, much of her attention was now focused on the issue of peace, and she served as president of the Pennsylvania Peace Society from 1870 until her death.
When Lucretia Mott died at age 87 on November 11, 1880, letters flowed into Roadside from across the country, filled with expressions of love. Memorial services were held by churches of varying denominations, peace societies, and the National Woman Suffrage Association, signifying her influence over a large cross-section of American society. Over 80 years after her death, the civil rights movement and the women's movement continued the struggle for equality to which she devoted her life.
Bacon, Margaret Hope, Valiant Friend: The Life of Lucretia Mott. NY: Walker, 1980.
Cromwell, Otelia. Lucretia Mott. NY: Russell & Russell, 1958.
Hare, Lloyd C.M. The Greatest American Woman: Lucretia Mott. The American Historical Society, 1937, republished St. Clair Shores, MI: Scholarly Press, 1972.
National Woman's Party Papers, Group II. December 1942–January 1943. Washington, DC: Library of Congress.
Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States. NY: Atheneum, 1970.
Correspondence and diaries in Mott Manuscripts, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College; another large group is among the Garrison Papers, in Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
June Melby Benowitz , Instructor of American History at Keiser College, Sarasota, Florida