Lucretia Mott was considered by many of her contemporaries to be the greatest woman of the 19th century. A Quaker minister shaped by her Nantucket upbringing, she was one of the earliest advocates of women’s rights and an uncompromising abolitionist.
She mentored Elizabeth Cady Stanton, lectured widely and raised money to eliminate slavery, organized the Seneca Falls Convention and helped incorporate Swarthmore College. She was a pacifist commemorated by a sculpture in Syracuse, N.Y., by another pacifist, Pablo Picasso.
Nantucket women had to be independent as their husbands spent years at sea. When her father sailed to China, Lucretia Mott’s mother kept a small store, and traveled to the mainland to trade oil, whalebone and candles for dry goods and groceries. Acting like a man in that way wasn’t unusual for Nantucket Quaker women. Quakers also gave girls the same education as boys and allowed them to become ministers – which is exactly what Lucretia Mott did at 28.
Lucretia Coffin was born Jan. 3, 1793, the second of eight children by Anna Folger and Thomas Coffin, a ship captain and later shipowner.
Early on, Lucretia Mott had a problem with authority. When she was a child, her grandmother told her she couldn’t go on a hayride because she’d misbehaved. Lucretia Mott talked about the incident 40 years later. More importantly, she resisted the authority of the Quaker elders who didn’t mind women’s independence but weren’t so keen on women’s equality.
“We too often bind ourselves by authorities rather than by the truth,” she said.
She was given the same education as the Quaker boys on the island. She later wrote, “education & intellectual culture have been for years equal for girls & boys — so that their women are prepared to be the companions of men in every sense — and their social circles are never divided.”
The whaling industry influenced her in another way: The Nantucket Quakers not only tolerated but employed Wampanoag Indians and African-Americans as crews on whaling ships. The Nantucket Society of Friends was the first in America to oppose slavery, and Nantucket’s slaves were freed shortly after the Revolution.
When she was four years old, Lucretia Mott was shown at school a British abolitionist’s diagram of the 482 slaves packed aboard the Brooke on their voyage from Africa to Jamaica. It was something else she told her children and grandchildren. She also renounced the use of products made by slaves, such as calico, sugar, rice and indigo dye – something she was taught in her Nantucket school.
In 1801, her mother invited Rhode Island Quaker minister Elizabeth Coggeshell to her home. Lucretia was intrigued by the role model of a minister who wasn’t afraid to challenge authority.
Mott was sent to a Quaker boarding school in Dutchess County, N.Y. Becoming a teacher inspired her interest in women’s rights, as she found out men were making three times as much as she did.
Lucretia Mott would move with her family to Philadelphia, marry James Mott and become a Quaker minister. But as Elizabeth Cady Stanton later said, her 11 years on Nantucket were central to the public activism that would make her one of the most famous women in America.
With thanks to Lucretia Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century by Carol Faulkner. This post was updated from the 2014 story.