Although Lucretia Mott was elected as an American delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention, held in London in 1840, upon arriving the renowned Quaker preacher learned that women would not be seated. Of course, that didn’t stop Mrs. Mott from becoming one of the most memorable figures at the meeting, speaking at associated gatherings, and even being depicted in the famous Benjamin Robert Haydon commemorative portrait of the event.  

“Nobody doubted that Lucretia Mott was the lioness of the convention,” a reporter wrote. “She is a thin, petite, dark-complexioned woman, about fifty years of age. She has striking intellectual features, and bright vivacious eyes.” She wore the distinctive monochrome apparel of a member of the Society of Friends, or Quaker.

Lucretia Mott, abolitionist, Quaker preacher, suffragist, and one of the founders of Swarthmore College, was one of the most famous women of her day.

In the history of women’s suffrage, the London convention has a special place. It is where Lucretia met Elizabeth—that would be Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The two women would collaborate on the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, the first woman’s rights convention in the U.S., and the Declaration of Sentiments, which came out of the convention. In its fiery radicalism, the Declaration of Sentiments, though not universally accepted by suffragists, even at the time, remains a key historical document in the suffrage movement.  

Lucretia Mott, abolitionist, Quaker preacher, suffragist, and one of the founders of Swarthmore College, was one of the most famous women of her day. She is not as well-known today, though that could change with a new scholarly interest in her. “Although a major figure in the reform movements of the nineteenth century,” the website of the Lucretia Coffin Mott Papers Project at Pomona College observes, “Mott’s importance has been under-estimated by the public and scholars until recently.”  The 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage is likely to put her in the spotlight once again. 

Lucretia Coffin was born in 1793 on the island of Nantucket, to whaling ship captain Thomas Coffin and Anna Folger, through whom Lucretia could claim cousinship to Benjamin Franklin. The Coffins were Quakers, and throughout her life Lucretia dressed as a Quaker and employed the Quaker terms “thee” and “thy” in addressing others. It can be momentarily disconcerting to read her letters and find her addressing the firebrand Stanton as “thee.” The Quaker religion combined with the demands of life in Nantucket fostered a spirit of independence among Nantucket women. 

“In the monthly meetings of the Friends (Quakers) on that island,” Mott recalled in a letter to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “the Women have long been regarded as the stronger part—This is owning in some measure to so many men being away at sea. During the absence of their husbands, Nantucket women have been compelled to transact business, often going to Boston, to procure supplies of goods, exchanging for oil, candles, whalebone, etc. This has made them adept in trade. They have kept their own accounts and indeed acted the part of men. Then education and intellectual culture have been for years equal for girls and boys, so that women are prepared to be companions of man in every sense, and their social circles are never divided.” 

The Coffins moved to Boston when she was a child, and, at the age of 13, Lucretia was sent to Nine Partners, a Quaker school in New York state. She was an assistant teacher when she met fellow teacher James Mott, member of an old Quaker family. They married in 1811, setting up housekeeping in Philadelphia. Both James and Lucretia were abolitionists. James at one time was engaged in a lucrative cotton business but quit because cotton was produced by slave labor. In the 1850s, the Mott residence became a stop on the Underground Railroad that helped fugitive slaves escape to freedom. In her twenties, Lucretia was recognized as a minister in the Society of Friends in 1821.  

In the 1850s, the Mott residence became a stop on the Underground Railroad that helped fugitive slaves escape to freedom.

Mott and Stanton appear to remember the seminal London conference of 1840 differently. Stanton would later write that, after being barred from taking their seats, the two women “walked home, arm in arm, commenting on the incidents of the day, we resolved to hold a convention as soon as we returned home, and form a society to advocate the rights of women.” 

Mott never provided a memory of this encounter. James Mott did not mention it in “Three Months in Great Britain,” his report on the couple’s experiences surrounding the London conference. “The absence illustrates the two women’s different understandings of the wellspring of women’s rights,” Mott biographer Carol Faulkner writes. Mott’s support for the suffrage movement, Faulkner suggests, “flowed less from her outrage at exclusion than from her notions of individual liberty and common humanity.” Mott may also have been more intensely focused on the abolitionist cause at the moment.

At any rate, the Seneca Falls Convention took place eight years later. It was held in a Wesleyan chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, where Stanton lived. Despite its place in suffrage history, it was not a woman who presided over the proceedings. James Mott, described as “tall and dignified, in Quaker costume,” chaired the convention. Stanton read the famous “Declaration of Sentiments,” on which she and Lucretia Mott had collaborated, and which was written to recall the Declaration of Independence. It began, “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have heretofore occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.” 

The Declaration of Sentiments included 12 resolutions, all of which were passed.

Despite the use of the word mankind, which some advanced thinkers might want to censor today, the Declaration was actually quite advanced, and will appear so still for those who actually read and ponder it. It describes history as “repeated injuries and usurpations” by men toward women. It accuses men of endeavoring to “destroy [women’s] confidences in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.” It is a powerful document that should be read and discussed as we approach the 100th anniversary of our suffrage.

The Declaration included 12 resolutions, all of which were passed. Interestingly, the only one that wasn’t passed unanimously concerned the right to vote. It was deemed too radical and indeed, when passed, opened the suffragists to ridicule. Stanton fought hard for it. Lucretia Mott originally questioned this resolution. Quakers were skeptical about participation in electoral politics. However, Mott ultimately embraced suffrage. She and James Mott voted for the resolution and signed the Declaration. The Encyclopedia Britannica states that this resolution “served as the cornerstone of the woman suffrage movement that culminated in passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.”

The year after Seneca Falls, Lucretia Mott delivered her famous “Discourse on Women.” It was in response to lawyer and memoirist Richard Henry Dana’s insistence that women were best suited to the domestic sphere. While affirming the innate differences between men and women, Mott said that women could flourish in pursuits then more commonly open to men.

“We would admit,” Mott said, “all the difference that our great and beneficent Creator has made, in the relation of man and woman, nor would we seek to disturb this relation; but we deny that the present position of woman is her true sphere of usefulness: nor will she attain [her true]sphere until the disabilities and disadvantages, religious, civil, and social, which impede her progress, are removed.” 

While affirming the innate differences between men and women, Mott argued that women could flourish in pursuits then more commonly open to men.

Mott was a woman with a remarkable presence. She was once engulfed by a furious mob, protesting her reform activities. She took the arm of one of the rowdies and directed him to escort her home. He led her to safety. “[T]here was a magic in her eloquence, a power in her calm, deliberate but pitiless logic that seemed to sway the minds of her hearers even against their will,” according to a reminiscence in a memorial book compiled by her friend and fellow Quaker, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier.  

Lucretia Mott died in 1880, but we expect to hear her eloquence recalled as this year we move towards the centennial of women’s suffrage, a cause she embraced, at first with reservations, and then wholeheartedly.