Lucretia Mott: Woman of Courage
Abolitionist Lucretia Mott was not afraid to stand up for what she believed was right.
The huge, jeering crowd outside Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia was in an ugly mood. That night, May 16, 1838, the second Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women was meeting in the brand-new building. The women called for a boycott of goods produced by slave labor and an end to slavery in Washington, D.C.
The angry mob had no use for these women. Many in the crowd of 17,000 were factory workers barely able to survive on their meager wages. What would happen to them if the slaves were freed? The competition of blacks for jobs would drive wages down even more. The sight of black women attending the convention especially irritated the mob.
The organizer of the convention, Lucretia Mott, a white 45-year-old Quaker minister, could not ignore the threat of violence. She had the women leave the building in pairs. Each black woman walked out arm-in-arm with a white woman.
The mayor of Philadelphia then locked the doors and appealed for calm. But as soon as he left, the mob broke into the building and set it on fire. By 9 p.m., the flames were reaching skyward and Pennsylvania Hall was in ruins.
Now the mob began to look for other targets. No one angered them more than Lucretia Mott. She was the leader of these dangerous women abolitionists. (Abolitionists were people who wanted to end slavery.) This meddling reformer should be punished, they cried.
Shouting "On to Mott's house!" the mob rushed toward her home. A quick-witted friend saved her and her family from violence. Pretending to be a member of the mob, the friend led the crowd in the wrong direction, away from Mott's home. But before breaking up, the mob burned down a black church and a home for orphans.
All this time, Lucretia Mott, a tiny woman barely five feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds, sat calmly in her front parlor chatting with friends. In her hour of danger, she said later, she had felt herself strengthened and uplifted.
She was at this time widely known as an abolitionist. Before long she also would become known as the foremost leader of the new women's rights movement. Her strong sense of injustice would lead her to champion many other causes over the years. She would plead for world peace, for racial and religious understanding, for the poor, and for prison inmates.
Horrified By The Slave Trade
Lucretia Mott was born January 3, 1793, on the island of Nantucket off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. At that time, Nantucket was the center of the U.S. whaling industry. Her father, Thomas Coffin, was a sea captain who sailed as far away as China in search of sperm whales. While he was away, her mother, Anna Coffin, ran a small shop in their house. The island nurtured a hardy breed of men and women famous for their independence.
Lucretia's parents, like most people on the island, were Friends, or Quakers. They believed in the equality of the sexes and the importance of education for both girls and boys. Lucretia began going to a Quaker school when she was four.
It was there that she first developed an intense hatred of slavery. In one book she read an account of the African slave trade. It told how blacks were captured, separated from their families, and packed tightly below the decks of slave ships. Chained together, without enough air, water, or food, many of them died on the terrible voyage from Africa to the West Indies and America. To escape their misery, some starved themselves to death or jumped into the sea and drowned.
Lucretia was horrified by what she read of the slave trade. Here was a wrong that strongly aroused her Quaker conscience.
At 13, Lucretia was sent to a Quaker boarding school in New York State. She was an excellent student and after just two years became an assistant teacher. She soon fell in love with James Mott, a fellow teacher who was five years older than she.
Meanwhile, her father had given up sailing and gone into business in Philadelphia. Lucretia had a suggestion. Would he take James Mott into the business as a partner? Her father agreed, and Lucretia married when she was 18.
Organizes Anti-Slavery Society
At Quaker worship meetings, Lucretia Mott spoke eloquently of her religious feelings. While still in her twenties, she was formally recognized as a minister.
On journeys to Quaker meetings in Virginia, Lucretia Mott saw the evils of slavery firsthand. She and her husband joined the abolition movement. She spoke out against slavery and urged her listeners to boycott all products of slave labor. That meant not using cotton, sugar, or molasses. Fortunately, there were enough abolitionists in Philadelphia to support stores that sold only "free produce" goods.
In 1833, Lucretia Mott organized the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. She also helped draft the constitution for the small band of pioneering women. It began with these words:
"We deem it our duty... to manifest our abhorrence [hatred] of the flagrant injustice and deep sin of slavery by united and vigorous exertions."
Antislavery was far from a popular cause in the 1830's. Prejudice against blacks was strong. In Philadelphia and other northern cities, mobs attacked abolitionist meetings and destroyed printing presses used for antislavery newspapers and pamphlets.
Public opposition to the abolitionist movement did not scare Lucretia Mott. She kept right on with her antislavery activities. These soon led her into another cause — women's rights.
A Turning Point
How did it happen? In 1840, Lucretia Mott and her husband were chosen as delegates from Pennsylvania to the World Anti-Slavery convention. Three other women from Pennsylvania also were chosen. The convention was held in London, England, in June.
On her arrival, Lucretia Mott was informed that women delegates would not be admitted to the convention! She fought for the right to attend, and the question was opened to debate. A few male delegates pleaded for the admission of women. But the great majority voted against admitting the women delegates. Important matters like politics or business, they said, were not the "proper sphere" of women. Their "place" was in the home, and their role was to raise children.
Lucretia Mott wondered how men who supported freedom for slaves could oppose true freedom and equality for women. Of course, it was hardly the first time that she had encountered discrimination against women. Back in the U.S. for example, many people were outraged because men and women together attended lectures given by female abolitionists. Many people considered this highly improper.
The London convention became a turning point in Mott's life. She now was determined to fight as vigorously for women's rights as for abolition.
In London, Mott met a young woman who shared her views about equality. She was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the wife of an antislavery leader. Eight years later, after a number of delays, the two women called a convention to discuss women's rights. It was held in a church in Seneca Falls, New York, in July of 1848.
Meeting At Seneca Falls
The women at this convention demanded independence and equality. They wanted to express their views in a dramatic way. Why not use the Declaration of Independence as their model? The women simply changed the words to suit their own ideas.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident," they said, "that all men and women are created equal."
This was followed by a list of grievances against men: They had not allowed women to vote. They had made laws in which women had no voice. They had allowed married women no legal rights.
Finally, the women's declaration demanded "all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States."
The Seneca Falls convention was the beginning of an organized women's rights movement in the U.S., and Lucretia Mott was one of its leaders. Throughout the rest of her life, she never stopped fighting for freedom and justice for all people.
Shortly before Lucretia Mott died, on November 11, 1880, she said:
"Weep not for me. Rather let your tears flow for the sorrows of the multitude. My work is done. Like a ripe fruit I admit the gathering. Death has no terrors for it is a wise law of nature. I am ready whenever the summons may come."