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In the United States Capitol Rotunda, there is a statue of the suffragettes Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Mott stands in front, tall and determined: a leader from the past who continues to inspire action. Mott was not one to rest complacent with her satisfactory family life – she was, in her words, “called to a more public life of devotion to duty.” With her strong convictions concerning equality for all humanity, coupled with her untiring campaigns against slavery and for women’s rights, she sowed seeds of change in her day. Part of the suffragettes’ statue remains uncarved, reminding us of the unfinished work that is now in our hands.
“It is time that Christians were judged more by their likeness to Christ than their notions of Christ.”
At the historic 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, Lucretia Mott read aloud a new revolutionary manifesto. Adapting the works of the American Declaration of Independence, it began, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” By the addition of two words these women had corrected the foundational document of American democracy. But in a deeper sense they had righted an imbalance of historic proportions and thus opened a new chapter in the annals of civilization.
The Seneca Falls convention was the idea of two women, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, both Quakers, who had met while attending the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840. Though women were a major force in the abolitionist movement, the male-dominated convention had refused to recognize them as official delegates. This exclusion proved a radicalizing event for both women, a catalyst in their decision to combine opposition to slavery with the struggle for the rights of women. For Mott both positions resonated with her Quaker faith, which upheld the indwelling of the divine light in each human being. On this basis she devoted her life to the cause of liberty and the equality of all persons before God.
Lucretia, the daughter of a whaling captain, was born in Nantucket and educated in a Quaker school in New York before settling with her family in Pennsylvania. Her marriage in 1811 to James Mott began an unusually close partnership. Her husband, a successful merchant, supported Lucretia in all her causes and followed her about on her travels. He even consented to chair the convention at Seneca Falls when none of the women felt qualified for the task. Lucretia bore six children. The death of her first son, Tommy, prompted a period of deep religious introspection. Afterward, in a Quaker meeting, she spoke with such depth and insight that she was formally recognized as a minister.
This was a time of rising tensions within the Quaker communities. While “orthodox” Friends put more emphasis on order and the authority of scripture, Lucretia sympathized with the teaching of Elias Hicks, who stressed the authority of the Spirit in the hearts of the faithful. Hicks was also an ardent abolitionist. The Motts followed his lead in refusing any commerce in the fruits of slavery. They wore linen or wool instead of cotton from Southern plantations; they used maple sugar instead of cane sugar. Increasingly, this antislavery message found its way into Lucretia’s preaching, drawing complaints from Quaker elders who urged her to avoid such “divisive” social issues.
It was in 1830, however, after meeting the radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, that Lucretia threw herself fully into the struggle against slavery. After creating a stir when she rose to speak at a national antislavery convention in Philadelphia, she proceeded to found the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. In the opening words of its constitution, she wrote, “We deem it our duty, as professing Christians, to manifest our abhorrence of the flagrant injustice and deep sin of slavery by united and vigorous actions.”
The work of such abolitionist societies provoked a violent backlash, even in liberal Philadelphia. In 1838 during the anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, a violent mob of several thousand attacked the meeting, driving the delegates out by force, and burning down the building.
The anti-slavery convention in London in 1840, from which she and other women were excluded, prompted the next stage in Mott’s journey. Increasingly her preaching reflected a new feminist energy: “I long for the time when my sisters will rise, and occupy the sphere to which they are called by their high nature and destiny.” Her prophetic teaching ruffled feathers within Quaker circles and beyond. Nevertheless, she appealed to the spirit of Jesus – a spirit of liberation, justice, and equality – against the dry power of doctrine, creed, and what she called “priestcraft.” By this she referred not simply to ecclesiastical authority, but more generally to the power of men to define and enforce the “will of God.” And yet she continued to claim loyalty to her Quaker roots, and indeed to keep faith with the “eternal doctrine preached by Jesus…that the kingdom is with man, that there is his sacred and divine temple.”
The Seneca Falls convention in 1848 marked the birth of the women’s movement in America. Its resolutions – which elicited widespread mirth and sarcasm among those newspapers that even acknowledged the event – called for recognition of the equality of all men and women, including the extension of universal suffrage. To the question “What does woman want?” Mott answered: “She asks nothing as a favor, but as a right, she wants to be acknowledged a moral, responsible being. She is seeking not to be governed by laws in the making of which she has no voice.”
She continued to connect the antislavery cause with the promotion of women’s rights. In time, however, the work of the abolitionists was overtaken by the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. She rejoiced in the “Jubilee”: “In our more sanguine moments we never expected to see the consummation now attained.” Yet she could not help protesting vigorously that in extending the vote to freed slaves, the Constitution still excluded half the population, whether black or white. (Women’s suffrage would not come until 1920.)
In her later years Mott was glad to cede leadership to a new generation of women. She lived to the age of eighty-seven, dying peacefully on November 11, 1880. Days before her death she received word of a resolution passed at a national women’s rights convention:
Sincere thanks to Robert Ellsberg