Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a skilled propagandist who sometimes creatively remembered events in order to make a point. Or, to put it bluntly, she told some tall tales. The story of how the women’s movement started when Elizabeth Cady Stanton met Lucretia Mott in 1840 is one such tale.
Mott herself might have argued that the women’s rights movement started in 1792 with Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. Or maybe at a New York convention in 1837 – or was it Boston in 1841?
The two women did meet in London in 1840, as Stanton claimed. Their friendship did help shape the women’s movement. But eight years would pass before they met again and actually decided to hold the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls.
Historian Lisa Tetrault argues it may even be a stretch to call the Seneca Falls Convention the beginning of the campaign for women’s rights.
“Seneca Falls is perhaps the most enduring and long-standing myth ever produced by a U.S. social movement,” write Tetrault. Elizabeth Cady Stanton created that myth, and she had her reasons.
The London Convention
When Elizabeth Cady Stanton met Lucretia Mott, Mott had reached her 47nd year. Born into a Quaker family on Nantucket in 1793, she learned from an early age to hate slavery and to resist authority. At 13, she went to Nine Partners, a Quaker boarding school in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. After graduation she taught at the school and learned male teachers made three times as much as she did.
James Mott, a Quaker who felt about slavery as she did, also taught at Nine Partners. They married in Philadelphia on April 10, 1811, and devoted themselves to the abolitionist cause. Lucretia had five children who lived to adulthood, but she managed to speak frequently on abolition and racial equality. Though people considered her views radical, even heretical, the Society of Friends recognized her as a minister in 1821. She recalled that the early Quakers had tried to disrupt society, and urged her followers to do the same.
Another women’s rights lecturer remembered Mott as a velvet glove in an iron hand.
“While Lucretia Mott’s character was gentle, sweet, and lovely, let her record also be ‘a fearless rebuker of evil and error in both high and low places’,” wrote Phebe Couzins.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
When Elizabeth Cady Stanton met Lucretia Mott, she was a long way from the Victorian dowager depicted in photographs. In 1840, she was a lively young newlywed on her honeymoon.
Elizabeth Cady was born two decades after Lucretia Mott in the stodgy small town of Johnstown, N.Y. Her father, a prominent local lawyer and politician, owned slaves. Elizabeth, formally educated until she reached 16, liked to read her father’s law books. Her biographer, Lori D. Ginzberg, described her as ‘tempestuous and spoiled.’ Her cousin, Gerrit Smith, introduced her to the abolition movement.
In 1839 she met Henry Brewster Stanton, an abolitionist on a speaking tour of upstate New York. Both had illustrious ancestors. Stanton was a direct descendant of William Brewster, the spiritual leader of the Mayflower Pilgrims. Cady’s grandfather was James Livingston, a revolutionary war soldier who helped unmask Benedict Arnold.
Though 10 years her senior, she fell for Stanton. She found him good looking, an exciting orator and a brilliant conversationalist. He found her lively and adorable. Soon they got engaged.
Her father talked her out of the marriage, emphasizing the financial sacrifice she’d make by marrying Stanton. But then Henry announced he would sail to London for a meeting of the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention. Elizabeth decided to go with him as his wife. She would not, however, use the word ‘obey’ in her marriage vows.
How Elizabeth Cady Stanton Met Lucretia Mott
About 40 American abolitionists set sail for London for the convention. Before the ship got under way, Elizabeth Cady Stanton played tag with her brother-in-law on deck. When the captain dared her to be hoisted to the top of the mast in a chair, she accepted.
When they arrived in London, a schism had already formed among abolitionists over the role of women. Some, like Harry Brewster Stanton and Wendell Phillips, wanted to admit women to the convention. Others did not. A vote was taken, and the pro-women faction lost.
Lucretia Mott, a veteran of the controversy over women, wasn’t surprised. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a neophyte, viewed it as a turning point in her life.
She later described her conversation about it with Lucretia Mott:
“As Mrs. Mott and I 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 to form a society to advocate the rights of women.”
Mott doesn’t quite remember it that way. She dated the beginning of the women’s movement to another abolitionist meeting, the First Women’s Anti-Slavery Convention in New York City in 1837. Elizabeth Cady Stanton had not attended that one, though many of the American abolitionist women in London had.
Lucretia Mott also recalled the first time Stanton suggested a convention on women’s rights – in Boston in 1841.
But perhaps the London meeting of Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had a deeper significance. For, as Ginzberg writes, “In Mott, Stanton discovered her first female role model: a freethinker, an advocate of women’s rights, and a patient mentor…”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton met Lucretia Mott eight years later. Stanton had given birth to several of her seven children, moved to Boston and then to Seneca Falls, N.Y.
The two ladies received an invitation to have tea in nearby Waterloo, at the home of Jane Hunt on July 9, 1848.
Jane had grown up a Philadelphia Quaker and married Richard Hunt, one of the richest men in Seneca County. They lived in an imposing, 11-room Federal style house. N.Y. Hunt also invited Mott’s sister Martha Wright and Mary Ann M’Clintock.
At that tea party, according to Stanton, they poured out their grievances about their second-class status. Then they decided to hold the Seneca Falls Convention 10 days later.
The Myth of How Elizabeth Cady Stanton Met Lucretia Mott
It took another 33 years for Stanton to place Seneca Falls as the launching pad for the women’s right movement. She did it with Susan B. Anthony when they wrote Volume I of their history of the women’s suffrage movement,
But they neglected to mention another important convention, the National Women’s Rights Convention of 1850 in Worcester. That convention, which invited people from every state, had an impact throughout the country. But Elizabeth Cady Stanton didn’t go to that one.
The women’s movement had split, just as the abolitionist movement had in 1840. Stanton, Mott and Anthony stood on one side, Lucy Stone and Abby Kelley Foster on the other. The cause of the break: Stanton and Mott accepted the 14th and 15th amendments, which guaranteed black men but not women dur process and the right to vote. Stone and Foster did not.
As Tetrault noted, Stanton created the Seneca Falls myth for a reason. She wanted to consolidate the movement to direct it toward one goal: the vote. The story of how Elizabeth Cady Stanton met Lucretia Mott belonged to that myth.
That’s not a bad thing, concludes Tetrault. A myth is a ‘venerated and celebrated story used to give meaning to the world.’
With thanks to Lucretia Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America by Carol Faulkner, Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life by Lori D. Ginzberg and The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898 by Lisa Tetrault.
Image: Elizabeth Cady Stanton with two of her sons, By unknown – Library of Congress, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22568316. Hunt house By JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ MD – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23251826. This story was updated in 2021.