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What Made Lucretia Mott One of the Fiercest Opponents of Slavery and Sexism

Her humble Quaker upbringing taught her how to stand up for her beliefs

Lucretia Mott’s signature Quaker bonnet—hand-sewn green silk with a stiff cotton brim—from the collection of the National Museum of American History. (Richard Strauss / NMAH)
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After the close of the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, some 500 people gathered at the Crown & Anchor Meeting Hall in the city’s West End to drink tea and hear speeches from renowned abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison. Lucretia Mott, already the most famous white woman abolitionist in America, was present but had been barred from participating in the official convention because of her sex. But now the crowd began to chant her name.

Mott gave a speech, urging the friendly audience to boycott goods made with slave labor. Her own clothes that day, including her signature Quaker bonnet—hand-sewn green silk with a stiff cotton brim—were no doubt made from materials produced without slave labor, and this characteristically plain style of dress provided a contrast with the radical demands of her speeches. At a time when white women were largely bound to domestic work, Mott preached about progressive causes in cities across the United States and beyond, undeterred by the angry mobs that picketed her speeches and, on at least one occasion, marched on her home.

Mott espoused causes that extended far beyond feminism and emancipation, including religious tolerance and Native American rights. “Every humane movement for the last 40 years has known something of her aid,” the New York Herald wrote in 1872.

For Mott, equality was a birthright. She was born Lucretia Coffin on Nantucket Island in 1793 to Quakers who preached equality, regardless of race or sex. Women had independence on the island for practical as well as spiritual reasons: Most men, including Lucretia’s father, Thomas Coffin Jr., were mariners who spent months or years away from home, leaving the women behind to run the island. After one particularly long voyage, during which the family believed him to be lost at sea, Thomas moved the family to the mainland. In 1806, 13-year-old Lucretia went to a Quaker boarding school in rural New York, where she received an education on a par with any man’s. By 1808, the bright young pupil had become an assistant teacher at the school.

Here, Lucretia learned the limits of her religion’s egalitarianism: She was aggrieved to find that female teachers made less than half the salary of their male colleagues—including her future husband, James Mott. “The injustice of this was so apparent, that I early resolved to claim for my sex all that an impartial Creator had bestowed,” Lucretia Mott later said.

Once married, the Motts moved to Philadelphia, where they became founding members of William Lloyd Garrison’s Anti-Slavery Society. In 1821 Mott became a Quaker minister, and in 1833 she founded her own woman-led, interracial anti-slavery group, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Mott saw the anti-slavery and women’s movements as “kindred” crusades, as she said when she delivered the keynote speech at the first Women’s Rights Convention, in Seneca Falls in 1848.

Painting of Lucretia Mott
An 1842 portrait of Lucretia Mott by Joseph Kyle. (Joseph Kyle / National Portrait Gallery, SI; Gift of Mrs. Alan Valentine)

Yet while the right to vote became the central cause of the 1848 convention, Mott had no plans to cast a ballot herself. Indeed, she was generally uninterested in American electoral politics, which she believed had been corrupted by the government’s continuing support of slavery. “Far be it from me to encourage women to vote or to take an active part in politics in the present state of our government,” Mott said in 1849. “Her right to the elective franchise, however, is the same [as man’s], and should be yielded to her whether she exercises that right or not.” As the Civil War erupted, Mott called President Abraham Lincoln a “miserable compromiser” because he was reluctant at first to emancipate slaves in Southern states, and even punished Union military leaders—including Mott’s son-in-law—who freed slaves in the Southern territories over which they had taken control.

Through her speeches and organizing, Mott established a template for women’s rights long before that struggle coalesced into a formal movement and radicalized generations of women—including Alice Paul, author of the first version of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923—who would work to achieve Mott’s vision of equality.

“When I first heard from the lips of Lucretia Mott that I had the same right to think for myself that Luther, Calvin and John Knox had,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton said in 1881, the year after Mott’s death, “it was like suddenly coming into the rays of the noon-day sun, after wandering with a rushlight in the caves of the earth.”

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Mott was never willing to sacrifice racial equality for women’s rights—or even for her family’s livelihood. When her husband found success as a cotton merchant after years of struggling to provide for their five children, Mott convinced him to swap cotton for wool, a textile that wasn’t made with slave labor.

“I do not want to show my faith by my words, or by my Quaker bonnet,” Mott once said. “I want that we may all show our faith by our works.”

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