Abby Kelley came to Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1843 and turned the town upside down.
Day after day she delivered passionate speeches against slavery and for women’s rights. She wasn’t allowed to speak in the churches, so she spoke in apple orchards. She was heckled, insulted and denounced, but in the end she converted many Seneca Falls residents to her views. Five years later, the first women’s rights convention, the Seneca Falls Convention, was held in that town.
Abby Kelley was a passionate speaker and a tremendous organizer. She built a network of regional anti-slavery newspapers and raised the money to support them. She trained Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony.
Her influence on the abolition and women’s rights movement has been largely overlooked. She was a modest, self-effacing Quaker – except when she stood on the stage.
She was hated for her uncompromising views and for speaking in public — something respectable women didn’t do in 1838, when she started out.
The minister Theodore Parker in 1855 said she was ahead of her time, and she paid a steep price for it. “She was an outcast from society,” said Parker. “Other women hated her; men insulted her.”
She tried not to let it bother her. “Go where least wanted, for there you are most needed,” she said.
Abby Kelley was born in Pelham, Mass., on Jan. 15, 1811 to Quaker parents who moved to Worcester that same year. She attended high school at the New England Friends Boarding School in Providence, and then taught school herself in Lynn, Mass. There her views became more and more radical to the point she advocated full civil equality for African-Americans.
She joined the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Lynn and was assigned to collecting signatures for a petition against slavery in the District of Columbia. She gathered the signatures of half the women in Lynn. She began to travel on behalf of her cause, raising money, attending conferences and distributing petitions. In 1838 she gave her first speech.
During the first week of August 1843, Abby Kelley led six meetings in Seneca Falls. She held the first three outdoors because the churches wouldn’t let her in. She lambasted them: “This nation, is guilty of slavery,” she said. “It is a sin. Your churches are connected with slavery, and they are guilty of that sin. They are not Christians if they are slaveholders, if they steal and sell men, women and children, if they rob cradles.”
She said Northern churches were just as bad as the southern slaveholders because they had the ability to put things right. And she targeted the Presbyterian Church in Seneca Falls.
Abby Kelley stirred Seneca Falls to the foundations. She asked people to sign a pledge that said they refused to support any church, minister or politician who supported slavery or who associated with people who held slaves.
Her opponents heckled her, threw a rotten egg at her, slandered her. A supporter described a typical attack:
The newspapers falsely reported, “Abby Kelley’s dress became immodestly disarranged, and instead of retiring she stood before that throng and brought it into order, not in the least disconcerted by an exposure that would have made a modest woman sink into the ground.”
She had simply rearranged a kerchief around her neck in a ‘modest and womanly’ fashion.
Seneca Falls became a stronghold for both the abolition movement and the movement for women’s rights. Abby Kelley inspired the Seneca Falls women to hold an antislavery fair to raise money, and the town would continue as a hotbed of social reform for years.
Abby Kelley married Stephen Foster, an abolitionist who shared the platform with her in Seneca Falls. They bought a house in Worcester and called it Liberty Farm. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad and a haven for fellow reformers. They had one daughter, Alla. They refused to pay property taxes on the farm because Abby didn’t have the right to vote, and the county seized the farm. Friends bought it back for them. Liberty Farm is now a U.S. National Historic Landmark.
In 1847, a Boston journalist and reformer named Henry B. Stanton was attracted to the political activity stirred up by Abby Kelley several years earlier. He moved there with his children and his wife, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. One year later, Elizabeth Cady Stanton would present her Declaration of Sentiments at the first women’s rights convention in the United States.
Abby Kelley Foster died on Jan. 14, 1887, a day before her 76th birthday. During her lifetime, she had probably spent more time speaking on the platform than any other anti-slavery activist. She had probably traveled more miles in stagecoaches, farm wagons and trains than any other anti-slavery speaker.
Three years after the Seneca Falls Convention, she spoke at the Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester.
“Bloody feet, Sisters, have worn smooth the path by which you come hither,” she said.
Thanks to Ahead of Her Time: Abby Kelley and the Politics of Antislavery, by Dorothy Sterling.