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People & Ideas: Lucretia Mott

Lucretia Mott

Source: Library of Congress

Renowned abolitionist and suffragette Lucretia Mott became a prominent voice for social reform in the 19th century. Born Lucretia Coffin on Nantucket, Mass., in 1793, she was raised a Quaker. It was this faith that informed many of her early anti-slavery and women's equality beliefs and set her in opposition to many of the time who believed that Christian Scripture condoned both slavery and the inequality of the sexes. As she said in a speech: "The laws given on Mount Sinai for the government of man and woman were equal, the precepts of Jesus make no distinction. Those who read the Scriptures, and judge for themselves, not resting satisfied with the perverted application of the text, do not find the distinction, that theology and ecclesiastical authorities have made, in the condition of the sexes."

Sent to Nine Partners Boarding School in Dutchess County, N.Y., as a girl, Mott excelled in her studies and, after graduation, taught at the Quaker school. Yet Mott was paid three times less than her male colleagues. This disparity in salary furthered her commitment to women's rights. At Nine Partners, Mott met her future husband, fellow social reformer James Mott, and began a lifelong friendship and correspondence with the renowned abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

The Motts moved to Philadelphia, and in 1833 Lucretia founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, a group that attracted much controversy within the abolitionist community. Although her commitment to end slavery was irrefutable, many male abolitionists objected to Mott, a woman, entering politics. This divisive issue would lead to the fracturing of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1840 when members like William Lloyd Garrison argued that women should be allowed to be members.

Yet Mott garnered attention for her powerful and moving speeches. Attending the World Anti-Slavery Conference in London in 1840, a reporter described Mott as the "lioness of the convention." In 1849, she delivered one of her best known speeches, "Discourse on Woman," in which she argued that men and women should receive equal standing in society.

Both Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton staunchly supported emancipation for slaves, but they were dismayed when the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution failed to guarantee voting and civil rights for women as well as blacks; to them, the struggles were intertwined. In response, they formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, an early leader in the movement for women's voting rights.

Mott died in 1880. A statue unveiled in 1921 in the U.S. Capitol commemorates her life, work and example.

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Published October 11, 2010

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