Lucretia Mott: far more than a founder


Recently, the conference room Parrish E 254 was renamed the Lucretia Mott room. I’ve written about Mott before — she was one of the founders of the college, as well as a well-respected abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and Quaker minister.

However, I’d like to take this week to really get a picture of Lucretia Mott; the woman who advocated for abolition during slavery and for voting rights when slavery was over; the woman who spoke at the first Seneca Falls convention to gain voting rights for women; the woman who had support to become Vice President of the United States, despite her aversion to electoral politics. Today, Lucretia Mott may be a series of pictures and excerpts in the Friends Library and  a Parrish conference room, but in her time, she was a force of nature. And we, as students of the college she helped found in line with her ideals, inherit her legacy.

Mott was born in 1793 in Nantucket, Mass. When she was 22 years old in 1818, she gave her first “public” speech at the 12th Street Quaker Meeting House in Philadelphia. When she was 25 years old in 1821, she became a Quaker minister.

In her years as a minister, Mott gained great renown as a speaker. She emphasized the inner light of people and maintained that slavery was a great evil. She spoke at the first organizational meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society and helped found the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. In January 1839, Mott spoke alongside a coalition of academics from a “colored” Presbyterian church in Philadelphia. People at this gathering were impressed by Mott’s words.

“Some words of excellent advice, to both scholars and parents, were offered by Lucretia Mott, [who has a] devotion to the life of the slave, and lively interest in the welfare of the free.”

A Boston newspaper, the Liberator, wrote of Mott’s presence at an anti-slavery convention in London in 1840.

“Nobody doubted that Lucretia Mott was the lioness of the convention. She is a thin, petite, dark-complexioned woman, about fifty years of age. She has striking intellectual features, and bright vivacious eyes.”

Although Mott had moderate celebrity because of her Quaker teachings and was one of the American Anti-Slavery Society delegates at this convention, ultimately, she was not allowed to take her place at the London Committee, as only men were allowed to contribute.

What’s interesting about Mott is that she was, to use a modern term, truly intersectional. At a speech in Glasgow, the following was written about her statements on women.

“She defended, on Scriptural grounds, the right of women to speak in public; spoke of the imperfect education which women too commonly received, which consequently debarred them from occupying their proper places in society; called upon her sisters to look to this, and embrace every opportunity of gaining knowledge on every subject; not to be content with a little reading, a little writing, and a little sewing; to brush away the silken fetters which had so long bound them—no longer to be content with being the mere toy or plaything of man’s leisure hours, but to fit themselves for assuming their proper position, in being the rational companions, the friends, the instructors of their race. Better views, she rejoiced to know, were beginning to be entertained on this and kindred subjects.”

Within her feminist fight, Mott also took issue with the practice of reinforcing societal norms and expectations through flattery of women. At a women’s right’s convention in Rochester, Mott “arose and said, that although she was grateful for the eloquent speech just given, she must be allowed to object to some portions of it; such as styling ‘woman the better half of creation, and man a tyrant.” Man had become so accustomed to speak of woman in the language of flattering compliments, that he indulges in such expressions unawares. She said that man was not a tyrant by nature, but had been made tyrannical by the power which had, by general consent, been conferred upon him; she merely wished that woman might be entitled to equal rights and acknowledged as the equal of man, not his superior.”

Mott did not want to make any claims to a powerful, tyrannical nature of man. In her view, it was men’s disproportionate societal power, rather than inherent power over women, that created the state of affairs as they were.

Indeed, for Mott, the religious landscape allowed her the freedom to be heard and was the context within which she exhibited progress. This can be seen in her words at a meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York City on May 9, 1848.

“Look at your pulpits; they are widening; they are not the little, high, narrow, isolated boxes they were wont to be in olden time; there is room for several, and occasionally a woman is found to occupy a place there,” she said. “Is not this then an evidence of progress even in the greatest and highest of Christian principles?”

She continued, criticizing England for focusing their anti-slavery efforts on slowing the progress of the slave trade rather than stopping it altogether.

“But the labors in England for twenty years were simply to arrest the progress of the Slave Trade; and it was the work of a woman to declare, that “Immediate, not Gradual Abolition” was no less the duty of the master, than the right of the slave. In this Convention in Philadelphia, the great principles of human freedom were uttered that every man had a right to his own body, and that no man had a right to enslave or imbrute his brother, or to hold him for a moment as his property—to put a fellow-being on the auction-block, and sell him to the highest bidder, making the most cruel separations in families,” Mott said.

Mott’s contributions were far more than speeches to religious audiences, though that is where she began. She was involved both at the  first and the thirtieth anniversary of Seneca Falls. She always used her religious and social platforms to be a voice for liberation. During the Civil War, she spoke highly of black delegations of soldiers to military superiors to reinforce the equality of all of those fighting for the Union. In her letter to Colonel Wagner in PA, she wrote:

“Say what you please about the degradation of the n***o, it is all nonsense. Give him an opportunity of showing what he is, and he will show himself a man.”

Within the context of a system steeped highly against minorities, Mott always found a way. She used the language of those in power to undermine their views and slowly chipped away at the barriers between people. I could go on about Mott forever; it’s probably best that I don’t. So I’ll leave you with one of her more well-known quotes that compels us all to keep fighting the good fights:

“If our principles are right, why should we be cowards?”


**All quotes are from the book “Lucretia Mott Speaks”, created in collaboration by the University of Illinois Press and the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College, unless otherwise noted.

A portrait of Mott

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